Are there too many sixth forms?

The publication of a report called “Technical Matters” by Policy Exchange represents another nail in the coffin in the Gove revolution. It’s all the more powerful because it comes with impeccable Tory credentials – a think tank chaired by Danny Finkelstein – but draws some of its key data from research by Ken Spours and Ann Hodgson, leading lights of Compass. To see Policy Exchange joining the ranks of the “enemies of promise” is indeed something.

It can be found at and, without endorsing everything, it’s is well worth a thorough read.

The core message is not that unusual – a cry for better and more accessible technical and vocational education. What is unusual is the vigour with which the report lays into current DfE policy and also into the bias towards school sixth forms that has dominated 16 to 19 policy for at least the last 10 years if not more.The starting point is the finding by Ken and Ann that in one sixth form consortium, 31% of students dropped out of A level provision. The report argues strongly that the current overwhelming focus on the EBacc subjects is not meeting the needs of many young people. It argues that more non GCSE courses should be counted in accountability measures and that “the education system in England from age 14 emphasises academic study in a way that may disadvantage applied and practical alternatives… A distinct alternative route through the education system with a focus on technical and vocational subjects could serve to expand choice and better meet the needs of young people and business.”

The report makes the case for a different pedagogy and a different context for learning in terms that that will surely horrify the current regime at the DfE

“Innovations in vocational pedagogy such as contextualised and project-based learning are designed to increase attainment in the core subjects and provide young people with practical skills, using vocational subjects as the means of delivery… We must also consider the fact that certain subjects are included on a school’s curriculum to act as a ‘hook’ to maintain the engagement of young people who might otherwise be disengaged… Should schools be punished where they seek to meet the needs of ‘non-academic’ students, or where the community they serve is disadvantaged or comprised of many similarly ‘hard to reach’ young people as in the example above”?

The authors recognise that current technical and vocational provision has many issues. It argues for a much stronger model of industry accreditation of provision so as to ensure that both facilities and courses are of industry standard. It is robust in arguing for the decommissioning of provision that is not up to scratch. It even has a role for local authorities in having some oversight of vocational provision in schools. It argues that Wolf’s proposal to limit vocational courses to 20% of the key Stage 4 curriculum may be too restrictive but also, rightly, insists that all students must continue with a strong core curriculum, including English and maths up to 18.

The most unexpected aspect of the report however is its assault on school sixth forms. It savages the quality of careers information and guidance and is clear that this government’s changes will make matters worse. It has no doubt that schools do many students no favours by persuading them to stay on to do inappropriate courses. It also quotes examples of schools offering Level 2 courses which have no progression opportunities to Level 3 or which come nowhere near reaching industry standards of provision. One Deputy Chief Executive of an ‘Outstanding’-rated college condemned the approach of schools who decide to offer vocational provision and then put “two sinks in a classroom” and call it hairdressing”.

The authors then raise the fundamental question- are there too many sixth forms? It identifies all the well- known weaknesses of the system – many small sixth forms all offering much the same limited curriculum. This it argues is not a real choice and too often schools refuse to co-operate with colleges in order to inform students about the real range of opportunities available to them. It proposes:

–          An active commissioning function designed to ensure that students in an area have a real choice between academic and high quality vocational options.

–          Levelling the playing field between providers through changes to the funding (especially by restoring financial penalties if students fail or drop out) and inspection regimes.

–          Make data on students dropping out of courses public.

Perhaps most fundamentally, there is a substantial review of practice in a number of European countries where “social partners” are fully engaged with schools and colleges in planning 14 to 19 provision. One suspects that in England “social partners” would be on the DfE’s banned list of phrases along with Every Child Matters.

At the heart of this is the recognition that much of what schools do is a predictable institutional response to the pressures of the market and to the unremitting focus on academic subjects coming from the DfE. And it is very clear that much of this is against the best interests of young people and indeed of the economic future of the country.


One Comment on “Are there too many sixth forms?”

  1. trevor fisher says:

    dear john

    I would like to put this in the file as the next stage of pamphlet production will look at the impact of EBacc on sixth forms. The pamphlet will come out in the mailing due this week

    Alas I can’t save this so could i have yoru piece in word format please

    I think the small sixth form thing is adonis, 2005 white paper from memory