We are inured these days to changes in all our institutions, often it seems on a weekly basis. So it was not really a surprise, when reading through papers from a Sixth Form College Association presentation on recent moves within the sector by the DfE, to realise that things were going to be different.
What was a surprise was the growing sense of unquiet, discomfort then downright anger that began to invade me. I have been involved with our local Reigate Sixth Form College for a number of years first as a parent and now as a governor. I have watched and worked with the Principal and staff to develop an inclusive college for the locality in which the majority of schools are 11 – 16.
It has been graded as ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted. These accolades do not come easily, they represent years of long hard work by all staff, teaching and non-teaching support staff alike, but always with the student at the centre of all decision-making.
We are aware that we are the sixth form for local secondary schools and, working with our local Further Education college, aim to provide a broad palette of courses that give students the ability to maximise their potential and educational experience. We have been successful in helping students to build on their GCSE score to follow a sixth form curriculum that is right for them. We have a number of students who follow traditional academic ‘A’ levels, and students who follow a ‘mix and match’ curriculum; ‘A’ level with BTEC level 3, BTEC level 2 courses and GSCE. All are successful.
This has been achieved with no hierarchy or stigma attached to whatever courses a student follows because we value all student achievements. We spend time and energy supporting students to maximise their potential. In providing support for learning, a learner improvement programme and facilities to develop independent study ensures that all students are equally valued.
So I wonder why, among the many changes afoot that will affect sixth form colleges by 2017, is there the decision that performance tables will centre only on the results for those students achieving 3 ‘A’ levels. This data will reward selective purely academic sixth forms and disadvantage institutions that work with students to enable them to maximise their potential and life chances. Many students progress to university, apprenticeships in industry or employment after achieving mixed academic and vocational qualifications. Are these students not to be seen by the DfE and Ofsted as valuable?
I wonder if this decision, along with past and future funding cuts to the sixth form college sector as a whole, portends a stratified educational provision which favours the Russell Group universities and students and condemns other students to obscurity. Pushing the focus on the few ‘high’ skill/many ‘low’ skill job economy.
I wonder why a successful sector, that sends 14% of 17 – 19 year olds into universities, that the National Audit Office found achieves higher levels of attainment and generates better success rates and ‘value added’ than other post-16 providers, is being penalised. Why change something that works so well? Is this good business sense? Or is it that a new project with different bells and whistles is what is important to the careers of ministers at the DfE? I am thinking of the nine 16 – 19 year free schools, untried, untested but funded to the tune of some £62 million. And when did I become a cynical conspiracy theorist? Ten years of being a governor, working with staff at a local college? Wasn’t that something lauded at the beginning of this Government under the Big Society?