How Rochdale Sixth Form College taught its teens to think bigger

More than 80 per cent of pupils at Rochdale Sixth Form College go to university – almost all of them the first in their families ever to do so. Richard Garner hears a remarkable success story.

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The approach to the college leaves you in no doubt as to how successful it has been. Whichever direction you come from, the welcoming sign tells you that Rochdale sixth-form college is "officially outstanding", according to Ofsted, the education standards watchdog.

It is quite an achievement considering just four years ago it was "literally a hole in the ground – nothing else at all," says its principal, Julian Appleyard. It was, he admits, "quite a leap of faith" to come from a safe job as deputy principal of a college on – as he would put it – "the right side of the Pennines" in Pontefract (most of his students would disagree with him there) to set up Rochdale sixth-form college from scratch.

Four years on and he and his staff can revel in the fact that it has become only the second sixth-form college in the country to be declared outstanding under the new inspection framework. Rochdale was in dire need of good sixth-form provision before the college opened. Only two of its secondary schools have sixth-forms and around 1,000 teenagers a year were having to travel out of the borough if they wanted to stay on in education after reaching the compulsory school-leaving age of 16. Because of the difficulties, many did not. Official statistics showed Rochdale was 147th out of around 150 local authorities in England when it came to the average point score per pupil at A-level.

"We weren't dealing with financial poverty – we were dealing with poverty of aspiration," Mr Appleyard says. "There are only six or seven sixth-form colleges in the country that have less qualified students than us on entry."

Once in the post, he deliberately set out to know what made his students tick. He would drive to the estates where they lived and walk around in the evenings to see how they lived. He also shadowed pupils in secondary schools to see what made them tick and what turned them off.

The upshot was that the college deliberately set its entry requirements lower than others so more students could enlist – five C grades at GCSE was the minimum requirement for enrolling on a course at Rochdale. Some of the more selective colleges set targets of six B grades.

It paid off, though, as – in the first year – 22 students transferred to Rochdale to sit their A-levels and all but one went on to university. Last year, when the full cohort took the exam for the first time, 83 per cent went on to university. "Of those," Mr Appleyard says, "90 per cent would have been the first generation of their family to go to university. We're not only changing their lives but we're changing the whole culture in the community."

As younger siblings see the success of their brothers and sisters, they will set down a marker to try for university, too. In some respects, Rochdale sixth-form college – which now has around 1,000 students, almost all of whom are on A-level courses (it took the decision early on not to compete with the local further-education college that concentrates more on vocational courses), chose a particularly challenging time to open.

Within a year of setting up, the Government had axed the educational maintenance allowances – available to disadvantaged 16 to 18-year-olds to encourage them to stay on at school or college. In its first year, 70 per cent of the students who enrolled were enrolled at the college were entitled to it. Despite that, though, the withdrawal of the grant had no impact on recruitment.

"I thought it might have an impact on attendance," Mr Appleyard says. "After all, it was linked to travel. But it didn't." The college keeps a strict eye on attendance. Students and their parents get an immediate text message the moment they fail to show up for lessons. As a result, attendance is at 94 per cent.

Likewise, sixth-form colleges have also been in the firing line for education cuts under the Coalition Government. Many in the education world are bracing themselves for cuts when Chancellor George Osborne announces the results of his comprehensive spending review this summer.

For the sixth-form colleges, though, this will be nothing new. It has become clearer over the past few months that David Cameron's pledge that school spending would be protected only applied to the years of compulsory education (five to 16-year-olds). Thus sixth-form colleges, catering for 16 to 19-year-olds, are not protected.

Mr Appleyard is philosophical about the impact of any reduction in spending. "We've got a very streamlined expenditure anyway," he says. "We're not very bureaucratic. When times were good, others probably had a little bit of excess, but we haven't."

The college has a motto of "compassionate rigour", which sums up its attitude towards its students. They are set demanding targets but there is one-to-one tuition help available for those who need it.

Ofsted's report, published this spring, is full of praise for the college's efforts. "Teaching is energetic and often inspirational and builds students' confidence to achieve their potential," it says.

It shows the inspectors were particularly impressed with the way the college has promoted cultural diversity at the college – which has a 50 per cent Asian and 50 per cent white intake. "Students from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds work together very well in a culture of mutual respect where individual success is valued highly by the whole college," the report says.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as the college is second in the entire country in the "value added" league table for sixth-form colleges, ie, the amount each student improves on what is expected for them during their time at the college. It is only in the top 1 per cent in the country when schools and further education colleges are included as well. Rochdale was the first sixth-form college to be opened for several years and is now virtually having to fight off rival institutions as they beat a path to its door to discover the secret of its success.

Its outstanding rating could not have come at a better time for the sector as a whole as it seeks to persuade ministers that sixth-form colleges are in a healthy position to deliver on the Government's key pledge of achieving more social mobility and an improvement in standards amongst disadvantaged students. As for Mr Appleyard, the last four years have been an emotional roller-coaster. He can recall being in the college the night before it was due to open with the managing director of the construction firm responsible for the £26m structure.

"It would not have looked good if we had not opened on time," he says. "It would not have sent the right message." They did, though, and the rest is history. "There were a lot of no-sayers saying that it wouldn't work," he says. "But there's a buzz and an energy here and we've proved them wrong."

Why sixth-form colleges are worth paying for

Leaders of the country's sixth-form colleges believe the staggering success of Rochdale will have help them in their campaign to persuade ministers to put them on an equal financial footing with schools and academies.

Whereas academies receive £7,7880 per pupil for post-16 pupils and schools get £5,620, sixth-form colleges receive only £4,601, according to official data.

One of their main complaints is that while schools and academies are reimbursed for VAT payments on goods and services, sixth-form colleges are not. They estimate this costs the average sixth-form college around £300,000 a year – the equivalent of eight teachers.

The Sixth-Form Colleges' Association argues that its members educate a higher percentage of pupils on free school meals and have a good track record of getting them into university – thus meeting the Government's social mobility criteria.

"They send more young people to higher education than independent schools and almost one third of these young people come from the least advantaged areas of the country," said James Kewin, deputy chief executive of the SFCA. "They have long been and – as Rochdale shows – continue to be a great education success story."