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Primary Education News
News Sixth-form colleges: overachieving but underfunded
Despite outstanding results, sixth-form colleges fear they will be harder hit by cuts than schools
Linda Sinclair is feeling proud - and justifiably so. Over half of students at Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge, of which she is principal, achieved A and A* grades in their A-levels this year. It is an achievement that rivals that of top-performing schools – and reflects the high standards of attainment in sixth-form colleges across the country.
While sixth-form colleges make up just 93 of the 339 colleges in England, figures from the National Audit Office, Ofsted and Ucas all show that sixth-form colleges are doing better than state and independent schools.
And a recent study from the Sixth Form Colleges Association found overall success rates (levels of student achievement and retention) of 84% at sixth-form colleges, compared with 69% for school and academy sixth forms with fewer than 100 students.
But despite their success, "swingeing, brutal changes" to the way colleges like this are funded could represent a threat to their future, says Simon Jarvis, principal of The Sixth Form College Farnborough and chair of the Maple Group, a partnership of some of the top sixth-form colleges.
"Cuts from 2010 are beginning to affect the quality of frontline provision and we cannot absorb any more, while continuing to manage funding inequalities, without real harm," adds Sinclair.
The changes follow the 2011 Wolf Report of vocational education, which recommended the introduction of per pupil funding. Previously, different funding was allocated to qualifications, which meant that, depending on the kinds of courses they offered, some providers of education for 16- to 19-year-olds were far more generously funded than others.
But the attempt to create a fairer funding system has come at the same time as an overall reduction in funding for 16- to 19-year-olds and cuts to "entitlement" funding for pastoral support, including tutorial programmes, sport and careers guidance. While all providers have been hit hard, because sixth-form colleges are typically much larger than school sixth forms, these cuts represent a much bigger proportion of their overall budget. But unlike schools, they are not eligible for VAT exemption or publicly funded improvement support. Nor can they offset funding cuts for sixth-form courses with other sources of funding (pupil places for under-16s are funded at a higher rate), which principals say adds up to an average 6% budget cut (compared with just 5% for school sixth forms), with some institutions set to lose as much as 15%.
"Despite apparent parity, the reality is that school and academy sixth forms will continue to have access to more money per student than colleges," says Jarvis.
At large sixth-form colleges, where learners typically study four subjects a year over two years (requiring around 20 hours of contact time with staff each week), principals say that under the new funding arrangements, they will only be able to fund around 15 hours a week – leaving them with little option but to cut the number and range of subjects on offer.
'We're being driven down a route where students do less," says Jarvis. "Three instead of four subjects, less pastoral support, and enrichment that is optional rather than an entitlement. In the context of austerity, it becomes harder to maintain a broad, high-quality education when you are only paid to provide something quite impoverished."
There is a strong body of evidence to support the effectiveness of sixth-form colleges. Ofsted's 2008 report on level 3 provision (A-level equivalent) demonstrated a greater success rate within larger sixth-form colleges than smaller school sixth forms, and research by the National Audit Office in 2011 stated that competition from increasing numbers of small sixth forms "may lead to lower quality, high-cost providers". And a 2012 study by Southampton University found that "students who attend specialised sixth-form colleges could stand to achieve better results at A-level than if they were to attend a school sixth form".
Ministers certainly seem to be impressed. In March, the Secretary of State for Skills, Matthew Hancock, declared himself a "strong supporter of sixth-form colleges, which do excellent work". The following month, Michael Gove, the education secretary, said that "sixth-form and further education colleges do wonderful work. For too long, they have been Cinderellas, but under this government they are at last going to the ball."
So what principals are struggling to understand is why the government appears to be placing greater importance, in funding terms, on small sixth forms, says Sinclair.
The funding of new school and academy sixth forms by the government (94 since 2011, according to the latest figures) is frustrating – particularly when there is so much evidence to suggest that larger sixth forms are more successful, says Chris Thomson, principal of Brighton Hove & Sussex Sixth Form College.
"That would suggest to a government that is evidence-based in its policymaking not to sponsor small sixth forms: students will do worse. So why at a time of austerity are we sponsoring expensive small sixth forms?"
But the Department for Education says sixth-form colleges may have their calculations wrong.
A spokeswoman said: "The new arrangements will not stop schools and colleges from entering outstanding pupils for more than three A-levels. It is wrong to state that academies receive more money per student than sixth-form colleges. In 2011/12 we ended the unfair funding between schools and colleges for post-16 students by putting both on the same funding rate.
"We also put in place protection [of cash per student] until 2016 to make sure they can plan ahead. Colleges are treated differently to schools when it comes to VAT because of their legal status. We are looking into whether funding arrangements should be reviewed to take this into account."