The highest standards can be found at large, specialist sixth-form centres, claims Bill Watkin

This year has been an important one for specialist sixth form colleges: the first new A-levels and BTECs are in place, area reviews are at an end, the first academy conversions, and a growing sector as new sixth form specialists have opened. Next year promises to bring just as many challenges, and opportunities.

In its election manifesto, the Conservative Party adopted the second recommendation in our election manifesto and committed to a major review of funding across tertiary education. This acknowledgement, that funding for post-16 students is inadequate, is a welcome development. The danger is that a future government, focused on its industrial strategy and the skills agenda, will concentrate on technical education and apprenticeships, and will overlook the academic and applied pathways that lead to universities and beyond. If we are to remain globally competitive, and if the industrial strategy is to work, we will also need students with A-levels and degrees. This, then, is the top priority for sixth-form education: sufficient funding levels for the sector.

Colleges must balance high standards with viable numbers

At the start of the new year, as the impact of the first wave of reformed GCSEs, A-levels and BTECs is felt, schools and colleges will try to make sense of students’ grades in new linear qualifications while busily preparing for the second wave of subjects coming on stream in September 2018. Working out what entry-level requirements make sense, how to set targets and show in-year progress are what’s preoccupying teachers. With this in mind, sixth-form colleges will come together to develop a national framework that can be adopted, or adapted, across the country.

The population bulge has not yet reached the 16-to-19 age group and competition to attract new students is as strong as ever. Colleges must balance the need to maintain high standards with the need to recruit viable numbers – not easy when there is uncertainty about what the new GCSE grades tell us about students’ ability and their suitability for advanced study. The lack of strategic planning is leading to a glut of sixth-form provision in some areas and a shortage in others. The government’s decision to involve 16-to-19 specialists in headteacher board discussions is a welcome development and should go a long way to ensuring a more joined-up approach.

Teacher recruitment is increasingly a worry, and colleges are exploring the part they can play in attracting new recruits to the profession. There is the possibility of a gap year placement scheme to give young people an opportunity to experience working life in a college environment, and colleges can help to develop and lead the apprenticeship pathway into teaching.

As we move from a Local Authority model to a network of multi-academy trusts, and as the self-improving system gains traction, system leadership is becoming an increasingly important consideration for sixth-form colleges, the majority of which are strong, secure, well-run and successful organisations that have a great deal to offer. Several are already involved in academy sponsorship, others are drawing up plans to form or join MATs, or open satellite 16-to-19 free schools, and more and more are in teaching school alliances. The government wants a maths specialist school in every major city and sixth-form colleges are well-placed to support this policy and make it happen.

Small sixth forms are no longer viable, and we need more school places for 11-16 year-olds. Now is the time to reduce the number of unsustainable school sixth forms and expand the number of large specialist sixth-form centres, with their broad curriculum, their specialist expertise, their rich programme of extra-curricular activities, their trained mental health, careers guidance, UCAS and pastoral support experts.

It looks like being another busy and exciting year ahead.


Bill Watkin is chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association

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