Headmaster's Blog

Why Sixth Forms, super-selective or otherwise, are only half of the solution

I read with interest Ed Dorrell’s article 'What would I do if I were Damian Hinds? Here's a thought' (TES, 1 Feb 2018). While the article makes a clear political case for super-selective Sixth Forms – they would indeed tick many Conservative policy boxes – as someone with 33 years’ experience of working in the education system, I can’t help but consider the educational case for any such policy. 

Enhancing Sixth-form provision is certainly a good idea and, in the state sector where funds are limited, the economies of scale that larger Sixth Forms can generate will allow them to offer a richer and more robust education than smaller school-based institutions might be able to provide. 

But it is not enough to simply establish elite Sixth-form provision which will, by definition, exclude the majority of our young people. Here in Bristol, areas in the south and the east of the city have some of the lowest participation rates in higher education in the UK. But when there is no societal expectation of progression to university, and with just 16.9% of students gaining the GCSE EBacc at grade 5/C or above, will super-selective Sixth Forms alone change this, or will they just make university seem an even more distant prospect for most? 

Social mobility requires genuine opportunity for all and education policy needs to deliver for the many, not just the few. I would argue that to successfully address the shortcomings of our education system, something far more radical than additional services for the highly academic is required.

To have a positive impact, it is essential that government policy ensures that the right education is available to all our young people. As a nation we have still not come up with a fully accepted or respected vocational package; an offering that is highly regarded and valued by employers and students alike is essential to ensuring our education system can provide the opportunities and skills our young people deserve and businesses require. 

A quality and respected vocational education, alongside more traditional academic pathways, would stop so many of our young people feeling that education is not for them. It would give them the skills and qualifications required for rewarding careers and generate true social mobility, with all the benefits that brings to society and the economy as a whole. So in addition to new Sixth-form provision that focuses on 'A' levels, we should open new, purpose-designed, vocational Sixth Form colleges. Again, these should be strategically located in relation to a national plan, one that is in harmony with equally impressive sixth-forms with an academic focus. 

If we are restructuring the education system to offer an academic and a vocational pathway, it also makes sense to focus the national examination system on the real school leaving age: 18. Taking two sets of national exams in three years places unnecessary pressure on our children, creates a distraction from learning, and absorbs a lot of resources, including money, which could more productively be used elsewhere. Rather than wasting resources and energy putting children through a stressful set of nationally assessed examinations at 16, let schools work to guide and assess students’ progress and hold the schools accountable for the quality of children’s learning and assessment through regular sampling of outcomes. 

Our new Secretary of State could secure transformational and long-standing improvement in education by moving to a one-time-only national assessment system (at 18), and creating a national network of vocational and academic post-16 Colleges that focus on delivering robust, credible and respected programmes of study. The relentless meddling in the details of schooling that we have seen from successive governments needs to come an end. Government should instead focus on identifying a national strategy that is free from party politics and therefore sustainable over the long term.

Rod MacKinnon