Sixth-form colleges play a pivotal role supporting the further education sector in helping post-GCSE learners continue their learning, offering a wide choice of courses in a fresh setting. But it is not without its challenges, as David Adams explains.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2023 edition of InTuition journal, the full contents of which are available to SET Members. Learn more.
Sixth-form colleges occupy a special niche in the post-16 education system. There are 47 in England and about 10 in Wales, depending on how you distinguish sixth-form and further education (FE) colleges. They usually serve 16- to 18-year-olds working towards A Levels, T Levels, BTECs and other technical and vocational courses.
Because they tend to be large, often with several thousand learners, many can offer a broader range of qualifications, on a more flexibly timetabled basis, than most school sixth forms. There are also some that specialise in a smaller number of subjects.
Many learners respond well to environments that encourage independent, self-regulated learning, says Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, and often deliver strong academic results while offering a wide range of extra-curricular activities. “Every single college has been judged good or outstanding by Ofsted,” he adds.
But they also face significant operational, financial and practical challenges. Funding issues have been ameliorated by a recent bulge in school-leaver numbers, with use of the post-16 capital expansion fund meaning many sixth-form colleges have been able to accommodate more young people, Watkin reports. However, he adds: “Funding increases we helped to secure in 2019 and 2021 were very welcome, but the cost pressures colleges are facing, in salary increases and general inflation, particularly energy costs, have eradicated much of the benefit of that uplift.”
Altaf Hussain, principal and CEO of Luton Sixth Form College – one of the oldest in the country – highlights real terms funding cuts over the past decade (of between 16 per cent and 17 per cent between 2013/2014 and 2019/2020, according to Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis), while running costs have been rising, and have increased particularly quickly during the past year.
“This has left much less money to spend at a time when the needs of young people have become increasingly complex,” says Hussain, highlighting mental health problems and other effects of the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis on learners and their families. “Ongoing underinvestment in sixth-form education is bad for students, bad for our international competitiveness and bad for social mobility,” he warns.
Luton Sixth Form College offers relatively low entry requirements for many courses – “not because we have low standards but because we see ourselves as an engine of social mobility”, Hussain explains. Three-quarters of learners progress to higher education or Level 4 training, he adds.
In Taunton, learners at Richard Huish College include “a relatively high proportion” of learners from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, says Emma Fielding, principal at Richard Huish College, and the college enrols some who have not performed well academically at school. It can support their needs, she says, because of the breadth of the college’s curriculum.
I feel incredibly proud to work in this part of the sector – it’s a transformative place
But some fear the broad, flexible curriculum available at sixth-form colleges, and elsewhere in the sector, is threatened by the government’s planned reforms to Level 3 qualifications. In 2021 the Department for Education (DfE) announced that as more T Levels are introduced, funding for ‘overlapping’ courses, including many BTECs, will be removed.
Despite the recent postponement of many T Levels due to launch in 2023 by a further year, there are concerns that this will leave some people unable to access suitable courses; average entry GCSE grades required for T Levels are similar to those needed for A Levels, and above those usually required for BTECs.
There has been passionate opposition to this proposed change. In January 2023, a cross-party group of peers, including former Conservative and Labour education secretaries Kenneth Baker and David Blunkett, wrote to the current education secretary Gillian Keegan, warning that scrapping BTECs would damage economic growth and delivery of public services, as well as reducing social mobility.
In March 2023 the education secretary received another letter, signed by 360 college principals, school headteachers and academy trust chief executives, urging a further postponement of planned defunding until September 2026. The DfE has refused, claiming that a further delay would be to the detriment both to the education of young people and to the UK economy.
Many of those working in sixth-form colleges – as well as elsewhere in the FE sector – disagree. “The threat to BTECs is probably the most existential threat to the sector at the moment, with the majority of colleges facing a major financial hit as well as uncertainty in curriculum planning,” says Hussain. He cites analysis by the Sixth Form Colleges Association, which suggests that 62 per cent of BTEC students currently studying these qualifications will no longer be able to do so from 2025.
At Richard Huish College, 15 per cent of students are combining A Levels with BTECs. “The combination of those things is really door-opening for those students,” says Fielding. “It enables them to have a fantastic experience and go into sectors like healthcare, where we desperately need more people. Those students will often come in with low GCSE scores and need a bit more time. Running those qualifications means we can support them.
“Those qualifications are well developed, tried and tested, yet we’re potentially going to throw them away. I would very much hope that the government seriously reconsiders this.”
The DfE’s proposed remedy is a T Level transition programme and further reforms to Level 2 qualifications. But Watkin fears that asking young people to take further Level 2 qualifications will be “demotivating”. “The idea that this cohort of young people on [GCSE] grades of 4 or 5 should be denied the opportunity to progress is just wrong,” he insists. The House of Commons education committee has also recently intervened, calling on the government to hold off any changes until T Levels have become more established, and there is evidence they are more effective than the current system.
Finally, as elsewhere in the education sector, recruiting and retaining staff can be difficult, even although it is clear that many teaching staff love working in sixth-form colleges. “It’s a rich development environment for teachers, and many become experts in their fields,” says Watkin. “There tends to be less churn than in schools.”
But teachers in the FE sector are as vulnerable as anyone else to economic pressures and anxious to see pay and conditions improve. Some staffing problems are exacerbated by the higher earning power elsewhere of those teaching technical subjects such as law, STEM subjects and IT.
Yet despite all these difficulties, Fielding is optimistic. “It is a really vibrant educational community,” she says. “I feel incredibly proud to work in this part of the sector – it’s a transformative place.”