Efficiency plan may close up to 200 sixth forms

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Up to 200 school sixth forms – mostly in inner cities – face closure or merger from today because of reforms in further education.

Some further education colleges could also be forced to merge, said Bryan Sanderson, the chairman of the new Learning and Skills Council.

In an exclusive interview with The Independent, Mr Sanderson, who leads the government body responsible for all post-16 education, acknowledged some of the decisions could be "emotive'' but added: "Somebody has to grasp the nettle.'' Headteachers reacted with anger last night to the threat of closures, saying the plan would dissuade many children from staying on at school and thus threaten the Government's target of encouraging 50 per cent of youngsters into higher education by the end of the decade.

Mr Sanderson said: "There is an economic case for considering what is a suitable size for a sixth form, particularly in an inner city.

"Economics won't be the only argument that is considered, however. Where sixth forms are small and where there are several in close proximity to each other – we may have to look at them."

He added that, if two neighbouring further education colleges had expertise in different subject areas, they could be merged.

Because of a promise by David Blunkett to sixth forms when he was Secretary of State for Education, the Learning and Skills Council – made up of 47 regional councils – is committed to a "real term guarantee'' that funding overall will be increased at least to cover inflation. Mr Sanderson said that meant two-thirds would actually receive increased funding this year. The LSC has drawn up a £1.35bn package for school sixth forms this year.

Officials from the LSC conceded the number of closures was likely to be "dozens'' rather than "hundreds''. It says that, by concentrating cash on institutions that can offer a wider range of choices, it will provide more efficient post-16 education.

Headteachers estimate there are about 200 schools with sixth forms of fewer than 50 pupils. Some have only 20. Areas with the highest number include Kent and many of the country's inner cities.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "Maintenance of many of these [sixth forms] is important to improving staying-on rates after 16. Many of these sixth forms actively encourage youngsters to do so who would not otherwise. I do hope Mr Sanderson is referring to quality rather than size in reaching decisions. I'm sure this Government doesn't want to go down in history as the one that closed more sixth forms than any other.''

Mr Sanderson insisted the LSC was running a consultation exercise with students aged 16 to 25 and older adults wanting to return to education to find out what they needed.

¿ Britain's biggest teachers' union threatened industrial action last night. Delegates at the National Union of Teachers' conference in Bournemouth supported a motion calling for teachers to be balloted on the issue of refusing to cover classes after one day if a teaching colleague was absent through illness or on a course.