Small sixth forms risk closure

Small sixth forms risk closure

New rules restricting the ability of academies to open sixth forms could prompt the closure of existing post-16 institutions, some school leaders believe.

The government’s guidance for academies that want to make “significant changes” to their structure – including adding a sixth form – sets out four criteria that leaders will have to meet to get the
go-ahead.

They must now prove they can get more than 200 pupils for their new sixth form and that they will offer a broad curriculum with at least 15 A-levels across a range of subjects.

They must also be able to demonstrate, when making their business case to the government, that there is demand in their local area, and that their new venture will be financially viable and provide “value for money”.

The change follows criticism that existing policies have led to small sixth forms opening in areas without demand, consequently damaging existing
post-16 institutions by taking their pupils or becoming financially unviable.

But despite a positive response to the new rules across the further education sector, some school leaders say that it could force existing institutions to close. Heads should have the final say, they believe.

Micon Metcalfe (pictured), director of finance and business at Dunraven school in south London, said she wondered if schools considering closing their sixth forms would now feel that they had to. “I can envisage a future where Ofsted makes judgments based on 15 courses being the benchmark for a broad and balanced post-16 curriculum. That and the funding squeeze might be a disincentive to continue.”

She said smart schools would look at multi-academy trust structures and how they could provide post-16 education across families of schools.

“In some ways the government is sensible in agreeing to fund new school sixth forms with more than 200 pupils. It is difficult for a smaller sixth form to offer a broad range of courses and to be financially sustainable, especially as school post-16 funding has been cut by about 20 per cent since 2010.”

Mark Lehain, headteacher at the secondary Bedford free school, said he still felt his decision not to add post-16 provision when the school was founded in 2010 was the right one, but the new rules went against the “direction of travel” of recent education policy – which has largely focused on giving schools more power.

“Schools should be left to make their own decisions. We are a good example of a school that would love to have a sixth form, but we recognised it was not the right thing to do.

“Everything so far is about giving schools more autonomy. Why change that now? We should trust headteachers to make the right decisions for the communities they serve.”

The Sixth Form Colleges Association, one of several groups that campaigned for tougher restrictions, said the change was a “step in the right direction”.

James Kewin, the group’s deputy chief executive, said: “Until now, applications for academy sixth forms have been doomed to succeed. This has led to the creation of new sixth forms in areas where there is already an oversupply of good or outstanding provision, often with a narrow curriculum offer.”