Schools told to close sixth forms

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The Independent Online
ALMOST 40 secondary schools in Kent have been told that their sixth forms are illegal and that they might have to close. Some have existed for 30 years without formal approval.

Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, will decide their future in the next few months. The body that oversees further education has demanded that 31 of them should close, though Kent County Council is fighting to save them.

Kent still has a grammar school system, and all the schools involved in the wrangle are secondary moderns. They were set up to educate children up to O-level, but over the years they began to offer A-level courses. Now many of them offer a full range of A-levels, GCSE retakes and vocational qualifications.

For years, these sixth forms operated quietly because the numbers of students were small. But an increase in staying-on rates has allowed them to grow so successful that colleges fear their business is being affected.

Head teachers at the schools are furious that their sixth forms are threatened. They say they have responded to Government policy by meeting demand from parents, and are now being penalised for doing so.

Peter Walker, head of the Abbey School in Faversham, said its 100-student sixth form was 10 miles from the nearest further education college and worked in partnership with the local grammar school. If Mrs Shephard accepted the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC) recommendation that it should close, youth unemployment in the area would rise.

"We are running schools as businesses, meeting demand and reacting to the market, and now we are being told we can't play in that market," he said.

At Astor School in Dover, there are 230 students in a sixth form that opened in 1964 with staff offering A-level lessons in their own time. The FEFC has not objected to its existence, but the head teacher, Chris Russell, says there was a possibility that Mrs Shephard could close it.

The FEFC has looked at 38 Kent schools with illegal sixth forms, and has approved four. It has rejected 31 and asked for more information on three. A spokeswoman for Mrs Shephard said an announcement would be made in the summer about the sixth forms' future.

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