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25 August 2015updated 09 Sep 2021 2:51pm

Are we witnessing the death of the sixth form college?

My sixth form was transformational for me, and I'm not alone, says Christobel Hastings. 

By Christobel Hastings

Five years ago, in the midday heat of June, I finished my A-levels at my beloved sixth-form college on the Norfolk coastline. To say my attendance at that education centre was transformational is no exaggeration. The college, a beautiful and crumbling Georgian building with views stretching over tennis courts and the neighbouring market town wasn’t your average beige brick sixth form. But neither was the teaching on offer. Half my days would be spent hanging out the bay windows in English class, as my wonderfully bohemian teacher, bedecked in silver hooped earrings and huge purple Doc-Martens would give impassioned speeches encouraging us to rise against the establishment. Others would be spent producing fabric mock-ups in the textiles workshop with a mouth full of pins. Odd hours here and there spent sitting on the stone staircases somewhere, reading a tatty book of poetry.

It’s with a heavy heart then that I read the new funding impact report from the Sixth Form Colleges Association, which has revealed that the future of sixth form colleges across the UK are under severe threat due to Conservative government funding withdrawals to 16-19 education. The research comes in the wake of last month’s announcement of government plans to roll out a national programme of area-based reviews of post-16 education institutions, which lays out “a need to move towards fewer, often larger, more resilient and efficient providers”. In other words, state-sanctioned closure of some of the remaining 93 sixth form colleges in the country, justified in the interests of “greater specialisation” and “productivity”.

The damning report from the SCFA surveyed 72 institutions across the country to gather observations on the situation of the “financial health and viability” of colleges from the beginning of next year. 70 per cent of those who participated in the research believed that the funding they are due to receive in 2016 will not be sufficient in providing a high quality, well-rounded education for young adults hoping to progress beyond their GCSE’s. Worse still, the report finds that 83 per cent of college leaders believe that economically or educationally disadvantaged students will be adversely affected by the cash cuts.

The research highlights the systematic suffocation of sixth form institutions already considered an ‘endangered species’ in recent times, as well as the welfare of students who depend upon them for meaningful opportunities for personal growth in the wider world – something that 73 per cent of college leaders believe won’t be adequately covered to provide students with the personal support needed to progress to higher education and employment.

Speaking as a student who took full advantage of opportunities for creative advancement at college (which by the way, were already few and far between), the breakdown of courses affected from the cuts makes for tough reading. A third of colleges surveyed have had to drop modern foreign languages; an area which the UK already belligerently refuses to address, 68 per cent have reduced or removed music or drama activities, and 51 per cent have removed art or design activities. Educational visits have been reduced by 42 per cent, whilst careers advice – what many would argue shouldn’t even be up for discussion – has diminished by 22 per cent. Enrichment activities have drawn the short straw, with 76 per cent of college leaders saying their sixth form college has reduced or removed services. The cash crisis has piled significant pressure on other facilities; the report details that management structures have shrunk, class sizes have swelled and student programmes slashed.

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The SCFA describes how the government’s claims to improve college services by merging and consolidating centres is simply  “a continuing trend – while no new Sixth Form Colleges have been approved to open in the past five years, 169 new school or academy sixth forms have opened their doors”. Many foreshadowed the demise of colleges back in February, when a commitment to the protection of 16-19 education was noticeably absent in David Cameron’s education policy. It’s little wonder college leaders are calling foul as they witness the deliberate isolation and erasure of their education centres before their very eyes, even as the Conservatives press ahead with their agenda of co-educational school-cum-sixth form partnerships.

I was particularly dismayed to read that my home county of Norfolk had already been singled out for early area-based reviews. I’ve heard a lot of people say that their sixth form college education was the making of them, and I can well believe it. My sixth form college was the making of me. Instead of attending the shoe-box sized sixth form attached to my high school – with a measly range of A-level options to boot – I was one of five students out of the entire year who elected to travel out of catchment and transfer to a better sixth form college. Every morning at 7.20am, I’d board a freezing bus and make my through winding country lanes and a dozen different seagulled villages on my way to college.

There, I encountered education that didn’t have to be prescriptive, boring, or force me to subscribe to a study-STEM-or-die situation. I discovered, much to my amazement, that it was possible to study the arts alongside more traditional academic subjects, and it wouldn’t jeopardise your chances of a good career. From my teachers I received wisdom and knowledge on nearly any subject I wanted to hear about; from my advisors, solid counsel on my higher education choices.I began to see that for those of us who weren’t reared on advanced multidisciplinary curriculums and unshakeable self-confidence, spaces like my sixth form college were pretty critical in the development of young adult minds. Somehow, my sixth form college turned a chronically shy girl filled with a serious aversion to the pap of GCSE education, to a semi-confident young woman that was socially engaged and academically inspired. In short, my sixth form college kick-started my love of learning. In a statement released yesterday by the Labour Party, Tristram Hunt MP, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, said he was “troubled” by the new SCFA findings. “We need to widen young people’s horizons; to equip them with the broad range of knowledge and skills they need to thrive in the new digital world”, Hunt said. But how on earth can young people thrive if the very spaces that create the conditions possible for success are being eradicated?

It’s frustrating to see the last of the great sixth form colleges facing extinction. Sixth form colleges are the lifeblood of progressive learning, delivering greater prospects for young adults. As the SCFA report concludes, sixth from colleges “outperform school and academy sixth forms while educating more disadvantaged students and receiving less funding”. They’re a home grown educational success story, whose rapidly dwindling numbers only serves to underline the government’s woeful short-sightedness in its refusal to protect them. But the cuts also emphasise the government’s negligence when it comes to supporting the career progression of young adults headed to sixth form colleges once they find themselves out of the school gates. Maggie Dutton, Senior Adviser at Cambridgeshire County Council agrees: “The government must cease its policy of picking and choosing between which students get financial provision. Funding inequalities put the higher education and future employment of a huge number of young adults at serious risk – that’s not a chance they should be willing to take.”

Yes, Cameron’s refusal to protect sixth form colleges is tantamount to sticking two fingers up to the interests of thousands of young people who depend on their institutions for a well-balanced education. Though many would consider foreign language skills, a nurtured creativity and a sound helping of careers advice preferable in their post-16 education, for some future students, it will cease to even remain an option. What’s more, if students are to stand any chance of fielding off hot competition from highly-educated, intensely-privileged students from private institutions in the fight for university places, they’re going to be hard pressed to make a good case for themselves.

It’s odd to think that fifty years ago, education systems favoured facts-based forms of learning whilst arts subjects were pushed to the bottom of the heap. Careers advice (if you were lucky) might have earned you a recommendation to a secretarial position, or a woodworking apprenticeship. Yet in a perverse twist of fate, we’re reverting back to bygone times that deliberately stigmatised certain subjects and left the fate of state school education students to chance. Now, we’re facing a very real situation whereby any further cash cuts will surely signal the death knell of the great state sixth form college. In the meantime, sixth form colleges, those precious, sacred spaces of trusted provision for young minds, are gearing up for A-Level results day. Who’s to say these occasions won’t become consigned to the history books in forthcoming years?

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