Elite sixth forms: is there room for optimism?

3 Feb 2022, 15:07

Let’s have ‘elite sixth forms’ for hospitality, catering, caring and so on, writes Ben Gadsby

My New Year’s resolution was to be more optimistic.

New Year’s resolutions are always harder to keep in February, and it’s not helped by this week’s announcement of “specialist sixth-form free schools”.

According to the government, these are “to ensure talented children from disadvantaged backgrounds have access to the highest standard of education this country offers,” with the aim to support young people into leading universities.

The ever thoughtful Tom Richmond has provided almost as many valid critiques of the policy as there are words in the announcement. I think I agree with all of them. He is far from alone.

How to maintain my optimism?

Well, 16-18 education often does not work for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds – so I am instinctively open to suggestions for ways to do things better.

Critically, the offer to young people who haven’t achieved grade 4 in GCSE English and maths is usually the opposite of the “highest standard of education”.

We also know that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are only half as likely to leave school with these essential qualifications; and if they don’t get them at 16, they are unlikely to catch up.

They are also unlikely to be able to achieve T Levels, good apprenticeships, or other high quality post-16 options.

Perhaps some of these new sixth forms can address this challenge?

All we have so far is about three sentences’ worth of policy intention, so there is room for the policy to develop.

When you think about how much has changed in the four years since the Augar review of post-18 education was announced, it’s not totally mad to imagine there will be opportunities for tweaks before a single sixth form starts seeing students.

The choices made between announcement and implementation will determine whether the actual result is good, bad, or ugly.

All we have so far is about three sentences’ worth of policy intention

And it is possible to imagine a set of choices that results in something really exciting.

The rest of the Department for Education’s announcement is very skills-focussed with the new Future Skills Unit, more skills bootcamps, a boost for Institutes of Technology, and supported internships.

The skills agenda is the heart of the government’s programme, and these new sixth forms will be dragged towards that by the equivalent of gravity.

Indeed, Tuesday’s sixth form announcement was an explicit precursor to Wednesday’s broader levelling-up white paper.

This is supposed to be the key guide to all government policy for a decade, and ministers are likely to be thinking about tailoring policy to address the 12 new missions.

So only a skills approach to sixth forms fit the bill.

There are two relevant levelling-up missions, to ensure “the number of people successfully completing high-quality skills training will have significantly increased in every area of the UK” and that “pay, employment and productivity will have risen in every area of the UK”.

Academic and skills sixth forms both have a role to play and shouldn’t be in competition.

They should have different high-quality offers – true parity of esteem.

And it’s obvious which bit of the landscape is missing, and therefore ripe to be addressed by this week’s announcement.

So, here’s my pitch for what the announcement might end up meaning in practice: Institutes of Technology for non-STEM skills.

A suite of new sixth forms that specialise in hospitality, catering, caring – a state version of famous nannying institution Norland College?

As a part-qualified accountant, I always think that industry is ideal for this, giving teenagers the chance to get their AAT qualifications.

Lots of people end up doing evening classes anyway in their early 20s.

Let’s offer T levels, apprenticeships and recognised professional qualifications and routes not just into jobs but into careers. And let’s use employment outcomes as the measure of success.

It may be optimistic. But it also seems to be the only thing that makes sense for the policy environment we live in.

By the time this policy is fleshed out and delivered under the next minister (or even the one after that), who knows where we will be.

I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

My New Year’s resolution survives another week!

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