Drive for new school sixth forms hits the brakes as ministers perform U-turn

Ministers are set to perform a major U-turn on their commitment to push schools to open their own sixth forms after a government review into post-16 provision has raised concerns about “oversupply” in local areas.

The Department for Education has long encouraged schools to create their own 16-18 provision in a bid to meet the extra demand created by the raising of the participation age to 18.

The policy was a central pillar of former education secretary Michael Gove’s reform agenda, who claimed they were a key mechanism to raising aspiration within schools.

But this week, guidance published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on its review of the 16-19 sector in different areas across the country states that it will be “reviewing the criteria” for opening new school sixth forms.

The document says it wants to encourage school sixth forms to “collaborate” to a greater extent to “drive efficiencies”.

The report states: “Similar provision in sixth forms is often duplicated in relatively small geographical areas when it could be delivered in a more joined-up way. This may be particularly the case where sixth forms are very small, as some evidence raises concerns about the costs, breadth of offer and outcomes for these providers.”

It adds: “Separately, we are reviewing the criteria for the opening of new school sixth forms because of the risk of oversupply in various local areas.”

The move runs counter to government policy introduced under the coalition that stated wherever there was demand for new sixth-form provision only a school, academy or free school could be allowed to meet it.

The drive, instigated by former education secretary Michael Gove, led to the creation of 169 new school sixth forms since 2010. It was bitterly opposed by the sixth-form college and FE sectors.

But drastic cuts to post-16 education and the forthcoming spending review, which is demanding reductions of between 25 per cent and 40 per cent in departments’ budgets, mean that ministers are backtracking on the commitment.

Robin Ghurbhurun, chief executive and principal of Richmond-upon-Thames College in south-west London, told TES it was clear that ministers had been forced into a rethink.

“There are clearly some brakes being applied here, and that is because non-protected government spending is about to be cut by between 25 per cent and 40 per cent,” Mr Ghurbhurun said.

“If they are going to find savings of that much it will require some seismic changes in the type of services on offer, or complete withdrawal of those services.”

The U-turn follows reports by TES back in June, which revealed that scores of small school sixth forms faced closure because of cuts in funding for post-16 education.

The Association for School and College Leaders warned that any school sixth form with fewer than 200 students would be “financially unviable” under present funding levels.

The area reviews of post-16 provision being undertaken by Bis have drawn stinging criticism by both FE and sixth-form college providers for not also including the provision by University Technical Colleges, schools or free schools.

James Kewin, deputy chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said: “The evidence is very clear – sixth form colleges deliver better results than school and academy sixth forms at a lower cost to the public purse.”

Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, agreed, adding that it would be “unreasonable and illogical for the government to allow more new sixth forms and other post-16 education to be created during the course of the reviews”.

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