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New 16-18 free schools create more A level places- but at what cost?

22nd August 2023

In response to today's Department for Education announcement of 15 new free schools, 13 of which have 16-18 places and three of which are sponsored by a boy's boarding school (Eton College), the Association of Colleges has released the following statement:

Julian Gravatt, Deputy Chief Executive said:

"The Department for Education is funding 15 new free schools in the hope that they will teach 12,000 students when at full capacity but, the majority of the sixth forms will be academically selective A-level providers so some may struggle to find their place in the contested education market [1] at a time when overall 16-18 student numbers are static [2].

Ministers promised new selective sixth forms in last year's Levelling Up White Paper and, in principle, it is right to focus education investment in disadvantaged areas but the practical impact of these new institutions will be more A level places at a time when there is a need to shift the focus to technical education [3] and greater competition for scarce teaching staff. DfE will be paying 100% capital grants and underwriting start-up costs for these 15 new free schools [4] with Eton contributing some extra funds for an unclear amount of time [5] but the impact may, on past experience, reduce local choices for young people [6].

Back in January 2023 we welcomed the fact that DfE published the list of applications to run free schools and allowed councils, colleges and others to offer their views [7] but we continue to think that the long-term interests of young people currently in school will be better served by a system with more planning [8] to ensure that there is a wide range of options in all subjects and all levels."


Notes

1. There are 30 16-19 free schools and 47 UTCs operating but another 13 UTCs have closed. The mean group size of 16-19 cohorts in the open UTCs is 187 which is less than the minimum recommended by DfE for viability

2. The 22 August 2023 free school announcement comes one month after DfE announced the redirection of funding from 16-18 enrollments growth to boost funding per student. At a national level 16-18 enrollments have been less than expected (most probably a result of young people dropping out of education to choose paid work). DfE normally publishes 16-18 participation data in July but there has been a delay this year

3. Only 2 of the 76 16-19 free schools and UTCs open in 2022-3 offered T level places

4. SFCA analysis of 2020 DfE data suggests that it cost an average of £11.5 million to open each 16-19 free school which, with an average cohort of 397, worked out at £29,000 per place. With inflation, these estimates imply that DfE will be spending around £250 million in capital costs on the free schools and UTCs launched today

5. DFE guidance for Wave 15 applicants asked that they outline "mitigations" in case funding from third party ceases. There is an obvious risk that third parties walk away from sponsorship when they experience difficulties, when the publicity dies down or when there is a change in leadership

6. AoC research on 16-19 education suggested that more competition correlates with fewer subject choices and less specialist provision

7. DfE published names of 55 Wave 15 free school applicants in January 2023, 27 of which involved courses for 16-18 year olds. In correspondence with AoC, Schools Minister Baroness Barran promised that the department would require “compelling evidence-based rationale” for new schools, including “evidence of the need for a high proportion of additional places”. A number of colleges provided information to the Department and only half of the 16-18 bids went ahead

8. It is only two months ago that DfE published outcomes from a separate 16-18 expansion bidding round (for smaller amounts of money in existing colleges and schools). Everyone has known for a decade that rising numbers of school pupils would turn 16 and this would require extra 16-18 places but it was not until 2020 that funding was made available for new places.