Forget grammars! Sixth-form colleges are engines of social mobility

The government should consider how greater investment in sixth-form colleges could drive up standards, says James Kewin

Sixth-form colleges share the government’s ambition to create an education system that works for everyone, not just the privileged few. But the plans unveiled earlier this month to achieve this are flawed and incomplete. Flawed because they overplay the importance of independent schools and universities, and incomplete because they overlook the role of sixth-form education in general, and sixth-form colleges in particular.

Sixth-form colleges are engines of social mobility – the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association (SFCA) Manifesto shows that the sector outperforms school and academy sixth forms while educating more disadvantaged students and receiving less funding.

We believe the government should look beyond the independent sector and consider how greater investment in sixth-form colleges could ensure they, rather than just independent schools, can help to drive up standards in schools and help young people to progress to university.

Sixth-form colleges have more experience of students educated in the state system, and have real expertise in ensuring they are well prepared for higher education: data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency indicates that sixth-form college students get better degree classifications than their independent school peers.

Sixth form colleges are engines of social mobility

Universities can, of course, do more to engage with schools, but this should be in partnership with other sectors and not in return for an increase in fees. Tuition fees of £9,000 per year are twice as much as the average funding received by 16 to 19 institutions that typically offer more taught hours and greater one-to-one support.

Greater investment in 16 to 19 education is much more likely to improve the quality and diversity of sixth-form students who go on to study at higher education institutions than simply allowing universities to charge higher fees. Cuts to the 16 to 19 education budget have resulted in some sixth-form colleges losing a third of their funding since 2010. SFCA’s funding impact survey highlights the dramatic effect this has had on students.

What would the proposal to increase and expand grammar schools mean for sixth-form education?

Every grammar school in England has a sixth form – about 50,000 16 to 19-year-olds are enrolled at a grammar school compared with 161,000 in
sixth-form colleges. Grammar school sixth forms tend to be larger than non-selective schools or academies (an average of 302 students compared with 201), but are much smaller than sixth-form colleges that have an average of 1,716 students.

If the government allows existing grammars to expand, as well as new schools to open, the number of selective sixth forms is likely to increase. This is not good for social mobility – just 3 per cent of grammar school students were eligible for free school meals at 15, compared with 11 per cent in sixth-form colleges.

About 50,000 16 to 19-year-olds are enrolled at a grammar school

The Spens report on secondary education published in 1938 concluded that there is general agreement that much of what is most valuable in the grammar school tradition depends on the existence of a sixth form, and given that all existing grammar schools have a sixth form, this 80-year-old shibboleth could continue to influence the government’s thinking.

SFCA will assemble the evidence to ensure that it does not, and will instead emphasise the role that sixth-form colleges already play in driving up standards and aiding social mobility, and what more could be done with greater investment.

All sixth-form providers (colleges, schools, academies) are “selective” in the sense that they have entry requirements to ensure that students are equipped to meet the demands of 16 to 19 education in all its diversity.

But this is very different to selection by ability at age 11, something the weight of evidence reveals is a barrier to social mobility, and the expansion of which is unlikely to help realise the prime minister’s ambition of a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us.


James Kewin is deputy chief executive at the Sixth Form College’s Association

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