Richard Downes: Why we need to keep sixth forms

School sixth forms are under threat. But they provide an excellent service, don't they?
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The Independent Online

Schools have had to endure the over-hasty introduction of the new version A and AS-levels, which have stretched resources, exhausted teachers and confused parents and pupils alike and which have just gone through their first full cycle. Now the same is due from a new method of funding and overseeing of education in the post-16 age group. This will now be administered, managed and funded through the new Learning Skills Councils – another set of quangos formed from bean counters, bureaucrats and civil servants wedded to the buttered-up local great and good. (Remember the Training and Enterprise Councils?) The result of all this is an unwarranted attack on school sixth forms through reviewed allocation of funds and a gradual separation from the parent school. Many fear this will see the eventual abolition of sixth forms.

No one denies that some sixth form colleges, which are usually sited in the larger conurbations, can provide a good education and an excellent and broad subject range to their students. Because of their size, they can often seem to perform very cost-effectively. But school sixth forms, many of which are serving rural and semi-rural communities, can also provide an excellent service, especially in the more traditional and academic subjects. They offer a choice to the consumer, continuity to students familiar with their teachers and environment, and provide a buffer between the approaches required by school and university. Not all students are ready to make the jump into the college way of life with the "it's all up to you" approach. At 16 many still need the support of a school structure to lay down good learning and study habits while they mature. It is a pleasure to hear sixth-form teachers talk enthusiastically of the developing relationships with their students. And sixth-form students offer an excellent example to the younger pupils in their own school

Another factor is the availability within schools of staff with a wide teaching range. Many experienced and able school teachers are excellent A-level teachers, attracted by the opportunity to teach at a high level for some of the time. To have within a school a number of teachers whose detailed knowledge of their subject runs to advanced levels is a benefit to all pupils at every age. If sixth forms go, these teachers' skill and expertise will be lost to schools, weakening the system at Key Stage Four.

The change to funding has resulted in some schools with good sixth forms whose budgets have been slashed by hundreds of thousands of pounds, with further cuts threatened. All this is triggered by an organisation that has spent millions just to provide office space for itself and its pampered staff.

No doubt the excuse for this interference and upheaval is that it is an attempt to improve standards – but the baby is being thrown out with the bath water. Good sixth forms should be identified, supported and funded properly. Their management should be in the hands of those who have made them so successful. But there are schools who serve their (often rural) communities and whose popularity is growing who will now suffer and perhaps one day face extinction because of another back-of-a-fag-packet piece of ideology.

The writer is a management consultant and a governor at a secondary school

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