A teenager sits on a train looking out of the window as the fields of the Midlands whizz by, struggling to concentrate on his book. Train travel isn’t part of his daily routine, and in a suitcase just out of sight there’s an unfamiliar and expensive suit. He’s off to Oxford or Cambridge, excited, nervous, worried about fitting in with those who use trains all the time, wear suits and go to the same schools in London or other Oxbridge hotspots. Those who are already part of the club.
It’s important that such teenagers exist, and it’s important that they are supported – to knock down barriers between them and competitive universities and careers. It’s something I think about a lot and it’s right that there should be people like me working on it. However, I don’t think it deserves to be everybody’s main concern. It’s certainly not the biggest challenge of sixth-form education, and it should not be the focus of government and media attention for ‘levelling up’. It’s not even the focus of this article.
This article is about something more important: the challenges facing the post-16 education of all young people, not just the top three per cent’s access to academic nerdery.
The simple, unavoidable truth about sixth-form education is that it’s underfunded. Any serious plan to improve it has to fix this. In schools, a full year’s teaching is 1,265 hours, so why is a full-time sixth-form education funded at half that? We don’t want to begrudge every farthing above current levels, so let’s start with an assumption of 1,265, fund it properly and see where we get to. Perhaps we won’t need it all. Then we can make the Treasury happy by giving some back.
The trouble with that easy solution is that we have a responsibility to spend public money effectively and we don’t want to pay schools to provide lessons for students who aren’t there or don’t learn anything. The ones who are keen to work and do well academically are easy to provide for; the ones who do less well academically but are happy to sit, listen and take notes are also completely manageable within our notional, well-funded framework. The ones who know what job they want and are prepared to work hard at it but don’t want the oppression of school will be brilliant on an apprenticeship. The problem is not students who already have focus, who are already good at something.
It’s harder to provide for students who don’t want to be there – those who don’t want to be “told what to do like children” but aren’t mature enough to take responsibility for themselves. If the two years of sixth form are about the important step from adolescence to young adulthood then we need to think about what we do with those who find the transition challenging, who get the steps in the wrong order. And our current idiom is often close to the worst possible caricature of treating them like adults. We allow them to choose to behave like children, when we should be treating them like children and teaching them to become adults.
Creating a curriculum that engages young people who have had enough of school; finding a way to teach the employability skills of hard work, punctuality and reliability; working out what really good vocational education looks like; enabling those with learning difficulties, or disabilities, or a history of exclusion or lawbreaking to access education: these are the difficult challenges that need attention.
I’m afraid that I don’t have all the answers; I’m not sure anyone does yet. What I can say is that if we want to help teenagers like the one on the train at the start of the article, then we don’t need to create dozens of new ‘elite sixth forms’ across the country’s ‘cold spots’. Just fund 900 hours a year of taught lessons, let people like me get on with the things we’re doing and spend the remainder of the 1,265-hour budget on the really difficult problems.