9. DfE should review post-16 provision in schools

Recommendation 9

DfE should carry out targeted reviews of post-16 provision in schools[1] to ensure they are financially sustainable and offer quality and breadth to young people.

The Government's approach to the organisation of 16 to 19 education has been haphazard because of the emphasis on choice and competition without proper attention to the consequences. 169 new academy and maintained sixth forms were opened between 2010 and 2015[2] but the total numbers of enrolled school students has been static. Average cohort sizes were already small and have declined further. Curiously, DfE offers little in the way of practical advice to make school sixth forms work and has not researched the effectiveness of this reform. In March 2016, Ministers introduced five new tests to ensure that new sixth forms are viable[3] but this is a limited step because it does not cover the sixth forms that are already open. There is a long tail of small institutions, with 1,180 school sixth forms enrolling fewer than 100 students[4]. There is emerging evidence that some of their performance is sub-standard[5]. Meanwhile University Technical Colleges (UTCs) have struggled to achieve viability in a system currently built around exams and transfer at age 16 and, as a result, six have closed while one did not open as planned[6].

A sensible policy from DfE in light of this evidence would be to use its new tests to existing sixth forms. It may not be appropriate to re-run the post-16 area review process for schools, but it would be sensible for Regional Schools Commissioners and councils to be asked to review sixth forms which are particularly small or underperforming. There will clearly be cases in very rural areas where an 11-18 school with a small sixth form is the best option and there may be tightly focused specialist sixth forms which achieve high standards with small cohorts. Nevertheless, it is time for a fresh look at this issue. One option would be for DfE to embark on a parallel area review process for school sixth forms which judges them against the similar tests to those used in post-16 college area reviews:  financial sustainability and educational relevance.


[1] Post-16 provision in schools includes sixth forms in 11-18 schools and academies, 16 to 19 free schools and University Technical Colleges which are constituted in law as academies.

[2] DfE answer to written question 220526 sixth form education 16 January 2015.

[3] DfE guidance  “Making changes to an existing academy” says that schools wishing to open a new sixth forms have a good or outstanding Ofsted grade; that it should be realistic for the new sixth form to offer 15 subjects and enrol more than 200 students in normal operation; that there should no detrimental financial impact on the rest of the school and that there should not be a negative impact on high quality schools and college nearby.

[4] Statistics on numbers of schools with sixth forms of fewer than 100 pupils supplied by DfE.

[5] According to DfE data, the percentage of schools adding more value than expected consistently decreases with the size of institution, below 400 students.  Small sixth forms clearly work successfully in private schools but on funding levels more than 200% greater than in the state funded system. Research by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) suggests that 250 students is the minimum efficient number to offer high quality education at current funding levels.

[6] House of Commons Library briefing on UTCs, September 2016