BALD John square

Nicky Morgan’s approval of a grammar school annexe in Kent  made me wonder about government policy on sixth form colleges.

Until Mossbourne’s stunning success in its first A level results, I had not known a comprehensive school sixth form that I would have rated outstanding, and only a couple that did not require improvement.

The core of sixth forms is their academic work, and the schools I’d seen at close quarters had not been able to provide good academic teaching across the curriculum. Promotion structures in their main schools did not reward academic excellence, and so the academically able heads of department, who had been the mainstay of grammar school sixth form teaching, just weren’t there.

One of the two good sixth forms I saw had been established by diverting funds from the main school, so that younger pupils with reading difficulties were not getting the teaching they needed and left school unable to read properly.  This is my personal bottom line – a young person leaving school unable to read has been let down in a way that is both unnecessary and unacceptable. When I mentioned this to the inspection contractor I worked for, he said it was a virtually universal practice. How else could a school offer an A level course in physics (a real example) for two students?

Sixth form colleges filled the gap. They concentrated academic teaching, and gave a better chance of viable teaching groups in all subjects than would be possible from a typical comprehensive intake of 6 to 8 classes, against a typical grammar school catchment of around 12.  The parlous state of some sciences and languages in school sixth forms – those in which languages have not yet died out – is much less likely in sixth form colleges drawing from a dozen or so comprehensive schools. In effect, the sixth form college offers something close to a grammar school education starting at 16+, with a certain economy of scale.

So why are they under threat?  Progressives dislike their academic ethos. Most require good GCSEs in the subjects students intend to study and so do not fit the comprehensive picture. This contrasts with some comprehensive school sixth forms, who enter students for subjects they have no chance of passing – one I inspected was putting pupils on for A level French on the back of D and E grades, and had 100 per cent failure in maths two years in a row.  Hills Road College in Cambridge is one of the most successful institutions in the country, and yet a friend who was chairman of governors some years ago found himself fighting off a plan by leftist local authority officials to close it, simply because it was so good.

The current review of 16 to 19 provision falls between two government departments, Education and Business and Skills, which is carrying it out, and which has a vocational rather than an academic bias. As Ofsted no longer inspects sixth forms thoroughly,  it has no detailed evidence to offer, though it does, I’m told, have a seat on a steering group.

In the meantime, sixth form colleges are cutting courses in STEM subjects and languages that no-one else is in a position to provide, and we need to ask where these A level students are going to go if their courses are closed.

Will the only sixth forms be in grammar schools – perhaps no bad thing if they could be expanded – or are those in other schools going to be given whatever their school is able to provide, whether or not it is what they want or need to do? At the very least, the review needs to ensure that a full range of A level courses is available to every sixteen year old in the country, and Ofsted needs to improve its inspection of sixth forms in order to ensure that these courses are of good quality.

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