Specialist sixth form centres set for big expansion

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The Independent Online
SPECIALIST SIXTH-FORM centres could be set up across Britain under a radical move to improve staying-on rates and raise standards in the inner cities. Legislation to be announced within days will allow the centres and colleges to replace school sixth forms where councils and schools agree.

Ministers believe the centres have the potential to improve A-level results in inner cities and help attract middle-class parents back into the state sector. They could include work-related courses for teenagers as well as offering a traditional A-level "factory".

Advocates of sixth-form colleges say many teenagers perform better in a specialist centre dealing with 16- to 19- year-olds rather than a traditional further-education college. Officials have been impressed by specialist sixth forms such as the William Morris Academy in Hammersmith, set up to offer specialist education as an alternative to mainstream colleges.

The proposals are included in a prospectus outlining the powers of the new Learning and Skills Council, the pounds 6bn-a-year quango which will replace the further-education funding body and business-led training and enterprise councils. The new body will be responsible for regulating all post-16 education and training under plans to save pounds 50m a year by cutting the mass of bureaucracy surrounding colleges and training companies.

Under the proposals, popular school sixth forms which continue to recruit pupils will be protected from cuts. Ministers aim instead to "level-up" college funding to close the gulf between school and college sixth-form funding. However, local authorities and 47 new regional Learning and Skills Councils will have powers to set up centres and colleges designed specifically for teenage school-leavers.

At present, sixth-form provision varies from area to area. Some teenagers have a choice of school sixth form or specialist sixth-form colleges, while in other areas the choice is between school or a general further- education college.

Government sources say school sixth forms will not be forced to close. But headteachers acknowledge that the new A-levels due to be introduced next year will make it difficult for many small sixth forms to survive without forging links with other schools and colleges. The new A-levels will put pressure on schools and colleges by offering teenagers four or five subjects in the new one-year AS-level courses rather than maintaining the current norm of three A-levels.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said schools were happy to co-operate. "This might be a good way in which sixth- form collaboration could be taken a stage further." But, he added: "Local education authorities might use this opportunity to rationalise their provision, particularly in areas where there are a lot of former grant- maintained schools with tiny sixth forms." Graham Lane, education chairman of the Local Government Association, said opening a sixth-form college in the London borough of Newham had helped to increase staying-on rates and A-level results.