The Government's new White Paper on the future of post-16 education has ordered Ofsted, the Office for Standards in Education, into school and college sixth forms. Those which are too small will have to collaborate, those that fail to improve will have to close or merge.
Launching the White Paper and a consultation on sixth form funding's future, David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education, promised that no sixth form which keeps its numbers up will lose money. What he did not promise was that there'll be the same number of school sixth forms in a few years time as today. Instead schools will have to account much more closely for their costs, and Ofsted will make them account much more closely for their quality. The figures are telling, and have not escaped the ministers' notice, from Tony Blair downwards.
Late drafts of the White Paper openly described smaller sixth forms as offering "poor value for money".
There are 1,800 schools in England with their own sixth forms. Only a third have more than 200 students: 25 per cent have 100 or fewer, and 6 per cent have 50 or less.
What the figures show is that size does matter. Colleges are 20 per cent cheaper than schools, yet get roughly the same exam results. Sixth forms with 200 or more get results nearly twice as good on average as those with 50 or fewer. Value-added measures, which give a true measure of teaching performance, suggest similar students do just as well wherever they go.
Ministers have seized on the bald statistics, but they're hardly uncontroversial. Heads of small sixth forms complain that they say nothing about the intake of students. You can hardly condemn a tiny sixth form in a secondary modern school for low average results if it is offering opportunities its students would otherwise miss.
But there is more to the argument than just results. Crucial to Mr Blunkett's plans is the ability of sixth forms to offer a much broader range of subjects than at present.
The Government is trying to bring in a tough new course for academic sixth formers - up to five subjects in the new half-an-A-level AS exam and three subjects topped up to the full gold standard.
It is a regime much easier to introduce in a large institution offering 35 or so A-levels than a small one offering a dozen.
Also colleges are getting more help. Ten days ago colleges were offered a 13 per cent increase in funding - around pounds 400 per A-level student - to deliver the expanded curriculum. By contrast, Baroness Blackstone, the education minister, told head teachers on Friday they could cope with the changes by increasing sixth form class sizes.
The result, many believe, is that school sixth forms will be forced to merge, or at least collaborate, merely to cope with the demands being placed on them.
In Oxford, for example, the city's six school sixth forms and the local further education college pool their resources and run a central sixth form centre to mop up courses too small for a school to run on its own. The result: six school sixth forms able to advertise more than 60 A-level subjects and a string of vocational courses.
The London Borough of Newham took a different route, setting up a purpose- built sixth form college. Graham Lane, education chairman of the Local Government Association and also Newham's education chairman, originally opposed the college proposals, but has seen a college built for 700 expand to serve around 2,000 students - and has changed his mind.
He says : "The White Paper clearly produces the information that small sixth forms produce bad results. It also outlines the need for financial transparency, and it is about having proper careers advice to help students from 13 to 19 into the right courses. I do think there will be a move to see what is the best way to deal with our 16-19-year-olds and I think sixth form colleges will become an increasingly popular option."
Dr John Brennan, of the Association of Colleges, welcomed the new inspection arrangements: "For the first time comparable inspection judgements will be available for schools and colleges. I think the best colleges will look superb and better than the best schools. There will be some schools and colleges which don't look as good.
"Small sixth forms have problems in sustaining quality. They cannot offer a range and depth of study. They lack resources and that shows in their exam results."
Head teachers are worried, and many are furious at the link the Government is drawing between size and performance.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, says: "This will put a lot of pressure on sixth forms in terms of quality. But sixth form performance in Ofsted inspections has been graded very highly, so schools have nothing to fear from the inspectors.
"If part of the quality agenda is the range of courses, then schools will be looking very carefully at what they do."
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
Schools pounds 7,380
Further education colleges pounds 6,250
Sixth form colleges pounds 5,910
RESULTS: A-level point scores
School sixth forms (200+ students) 18.6
Sixth form colleges 17.2
Tertiary colleges 14.2
Schools (50 or fewer students) 10.8
General further education colleges 9
(A-level point scores where 10=A and 2=E)Reuse content