Priorities and challenges for the sixth form sector

Priorities and challenges for the sixth form sector
Date11th Jul 2022AuthorBill WatkinCategoriesPolicy and News, Leadership

This blog first appeared here.

There are four important policy developments in the in-tray for sixth form colleges which are all related and concurrent, but distinct from each other in important ways.

First, the introduction of T Levels and the continued funding of applied general qualifications (AGQs). While T Levels represent a welcome part of the government’s strategy to address the skills gap, they are as yet unproven and are unlikely to have mass market appeal; they also have problems associated with finding enough employers to engage, persuading enough students to sign up and raising awareness of what they are and who should choose them. 

As we have highlighted through the Protect Student Choice campaign, AGQs serve a different purpose for a different audience and should happily co-exist with T Levels; their applied learning, alongside their relationship with the workplace, make them equally suited to higher education pathways and to the acquisition of skills valued by employers. 

Second, the introduction of the Skills and Post-16 Education Act that sets out new statutory obligations and accountabilities designed to ensure that colleges work with employers to deliver a curriculum that will see young people leave education with the skills that will help them contribute to economic productivity. 

But this agenda will be experienced in different ways by different types of college: A general FE college might focus on local and immediate requirements, responding to the employment needs in the local area; while a sixth form college might consider national and long-term priorities, as its students often progress to higher education and usually travel to distant towns and end up in professional careers further from home. 

Local skills improvement plans, new accountability agreements and enhanced Ofsted inspections will need to take into account the context and core purpose of a college when evaluating impact.

Third, the academy question. Since 2015, colleges have had the option to adopt academy status and about a third of them have made this transition. This means they are now a part of the schools system and most have formalised their relationships with local secondary and primary schools, establishing themselves as system leaders and sharing their strengths in governance, finance and curriculum expertise. 

Those that have not yet become academies, often for reasons associated with a wish to preserve their autonomy and their ability to take out commercial loans, now face the prospect of reclassification. 

This is the fourth, and most recent addition to the in-tray. The move from the private sector to the public sector, heralded by the recent ONS decision to review the classification of colleges, is not the same as academisation. Colleges will still be colleges, and college and academy policy will continue to be as disconnected as it is now, though it is possible that some funding inequalities may be addressed.

Reclassification will prompt some colleges to review their status and the option to academise. 

The Skills Act will shine a light on a college’s (not an academy’s) contribution to the local skills agenda. Qualifications offered at sixth form colleges will continue to be dominated by A-levels and BTECs, though technical programmes will be available to a minority of students in some. 

Sixth form colleges will continue to do what they do so well: prepare young people for higher education and professional careers, working in partnership with local schools and with universities and employers across the country.

Bill Watkin is the Chief Executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, which hosts Blog 6.

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