John Bingham: It's time to recognise the value of sixth-form colleges - and create more of them

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The Independent Online

Sixth-Form Colleges are a better choice than school sixth- forms for many of our young people – yet there appears to be no proactive Government policy to propel the creation of sixth-form colleges where the need is greatest. There are pockets of the country where these institutions abound, but equally in some regions they are very thinly spread.

Sixth-form colleges are proven to offer excellent academic provision for 16 to 19 year olds. They occupy seven of the top 10 positions in this year's post-16 achievement tables when compared to comprehensives, and the Oxbridge intake of students from many sixth-form colleges is as good as any independent school. Equally significant is the fact that these colleges help bridge the gap as young people grow out of the child-oriented environment of school into the adult-oriented environment of university.

My son is a perfect example. At 16, he'd "outgrown" his school. He was armed with self-discipline and motivation and was crying out for a more mature approach to learning. Our local sixth-form college offered that and he has thrived within it.

In any case, the school my son attended – like so many school sixth-forms – couldn't offer him the mix of courses he wanted. Fitting a science subject, a humanities subject and two arts subjects into the same timetable was something his school was both unwilling and incapable of doing. The sixth-form college took it in its stride.

The evidence from AoC research undertaken each year clearly indicates that this problem of limited choice affects results as students find themselves taking unsuitable courses: the smaller the sixth-form, the worse the results. Small sixth-forms are invariably school sixth-forms.

With the average sixth-form college teaching 1,500 students, it means they have the capacity to teach a wide variety of both academic qualifications such as GSCEs and A-levels, along with vocational courses, such as business, childcare and art and design.

To compound the problem, too many schools do not make their students fully aware of the other options open to them, including courses at sixth-form colleges and FE colleges, leaving them to make an uneducated choice about the next best step.

We hope that new legislation in the form of the Apprenticeship, Skills, Children and Learning Bill would encourage local authorities – who will have more say in the commissioning and funding of pre-19 education – to convert underperforming school sixth-forms into sixth-form colleges.

I'm not suggesting all school sixth-forms should be closed in favour of these colleges. I'm simply saying young people aged 14 or 15 should be counselled that the next stage of their education could be spent at a different institution – one that may be better suited to their needs and abilities. I am also suggesting that Government, in recognition of the achievements of sixth-form colleges, enable more to exist.

Sixth-form colleges have been around for a very long time. It's about time they were recognised more widely for how they help shape the bright futures of so many of our young people.