Middle England loves sixth forms just as it loves grammar schools, the "gold standard" of A-levels and the sound of leather on willow. Or so we have been led to believe. But reforms now going through Parliament are expected to put a spotlight on school sixth forms of a kind they have never seen before. Experts are asking whether that will lead to the closure of sixth forms which are unviable and failing.
From next April sixth forms, along with colleges, workplace training and adult education, are to be subjected to a much more rigorous inspection regime than hitherto. And this new regime will be overseen by Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools. Previously, sixth forms were looked at fairly cursorily as part of Ofsted's school inspections, and colleges were subject to an inspection system considered gentler than that operated by Mr Woodhead's fearsome men and women.
Now all that will change - and it's not only school sixth forms that are quaking in their boots. Further education colleges are also concerned they are going to be named and shamed to a degree unknown before.
The plan is to inspect all 400 colleges over a four-year cycle, according to David Taylor, a director of inspection of Ofsted. At the same time there will be area surveys like that issued last week on Islington and Hackney, which is the first report of its kind.
If last week's survey is anything to go by, colleges and sixth forms have reason to worry - though the sixth forms have more reason than the colleges. Overall A-level results were well below the national average, it found, standing at around 12 points or two Cs compared with the national average of 18 points, three Cs.
One or two schools had tiny sixth forms with a narrow range of subjects. For example, St Aloysius' College, a Catholic boys' school in Highgate, north London, offers only nine subjects at A-level to a total of 39 pupils in the sixth form. Central Foundation Boys lays on 10 subjects for 31 pupils. The result is that the lower-sixth and upper-sixth forms have to be taught together for some subjects. There were no science A-levels in two of the sixth forms and modern languages were available in only two, said the report. And students are being pushed into doing A-levels when they were weak academically and would be better off in apprenticeships.
But the real sting came in the recommendations. Ministers were given three options: close down Islington and Hackney sixth forms and concentrate students in the further education colleges; open one or two new sixth-form colleges; or concentrate A-level teaching by subject in the existing sixth forms. Education minister Malcolm Wicks has appointed an independent consultant to sort out what to do.
Those recommendations make uncomfortable reading for the sixth forms and colleges - for the former because they herald radical change and for the latter because they question whether parents and students want to use the FE colleges despite their superior performance. Not surprisingly, the Association of Colleges has reacted angrily. "I'm baffled by the logic of the second and third options," says AoC chief executive, David Gibson.
"The two FE colleges have already built their success on the back of previous mergers with failing school sixth forms. So, the only sensible way forward ought, by logic, to be the first option - put all teaching and learning for 16- to 19-year-olds in FE colleges."
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the second two recommendations are there for political reasons. Politicians know that FE colleges have a poor and unfocused brand image compared with sixth forms and sixth-form colleges. And you can be sure Tony Blair doesn't want to go down in history as the prime minister who presided over sixth-form closures. So, it looks as though the Government would rather create something new and buzzy than go for the cheapest and most obvious solution.
The two FE colleges - one in Hackney, the other in Islington - come relatively well out of the report, though the second achieved better results than the first. They offer a wider range of A-levels than the school sixth forms. But they have a much bigger percentage of students dropping out of A-level courses - 28 per cent at City and Islington College and 22 per cent at Hackney Community College. The schools have relatively few drop-outs.
Colleges are worried that the new inspection system, coming into force next year, will lead to an even harsher light falling on them. Although last week's report ushered in the new area-wide surveys, it was not carried out by the unified inspection regime.
The new inspections are expected to be similar to Ofsted inspections in schools in that they will emphasise the quality of teaching. "Just as we grade the teaching of individual lessons in schools we will do the same when we assess the teaching of individual lecturers," says Mr Taylor. The present FE inspection system does not do this.
Moreover, the current system is based on self-assessment. Ofsted is not opposed to self-assessment, says Mr Taylor. But it does not believe self-assessment should have the central role that it does now. "We think it's important to stress that the inspection is an independent external event, taking full account of self-assessment, but in no sense constrained by it."
In particular, the colleges fear losing the nominee who sits in on inspection meetings and is able to correct errors of fact or misinterpretations made by the inspection team. That nominee gives colleges a feeling of confidence in the inspection system, according to Mr Gibson. Ofsted, however, believes it's important to keep the team separate from the college in the key meetings when judgments are being made - as happens with the schools inspection regime.
"We see that as ensuring the processes of forming inspection judgments and professional collaboration are kept as separate as they can be," says Mr Taylor. "We think there's a risk of contamination otherwise." Behind the reform lies the hand of the Prime Minister and his Education Secretary, David Blunkett. They want as rigorous an inspection regime as possible for FE colleges and for it to be similar to the schools' regime. "We would like to give unambiguous signals about the quality of the teaching and the standards in the main curriculum and in A-level and non A-level courses so students and parents can make decisions about the best buy in quality," says Mr Taylor.
"We're also concerned about the best buy in economic terms. Inspectors will be looking at value for money."
That is where the colleges believe they have a trump card. It costs less to educate A-level students in colleges than in sixth forms, according to the AoC. Its calculations show that it costs £1,000 less per student. No doubt the independent consultant sorting out Islington and Hackney's 16 to 18 provision will bear that in mind, setting it against the quality of learning and against whether local people want to keep their sixth forms.
"We think it's important when we look at value-for-money factors that we don't take too mechanistic an approach, and also that we look at value in terms of the all-round quality of education provided," Mr Taylor says.
The new inspection regime will be examining more teaching than the current FE inspections do. It will look at more lessons and more subjects. And it will continue to evaluate the overall level of effectiveness and efficiency of the college and the quality of leadership and management.
The current inspection regime has already pointed to a catalogue of poor management and to a failure of financial controls in colleges.
Bilston College in Wolverhampton, for example, was forced to close after plunging more than £5m into the red.
"The intention of the new area-wide inspections is to look at what's on offer for teenagers locally," says Mr Taylor.
"We are trying to focus on issues that put the learner at the heart of the process - and we are also trying to counteract disadvantage."
Higher education had better watch out. One day Mr Woodhead's remit may extend to universities too.Reuse content