It is mid morning and students are streaming through the gates of Portsmouth college. But they are not late: lessons do not begin until 10am.
Until recently, this sixth- form college started at 8.30am, but in September 2013, the principal, Steve Frampton, decided to start students’ days later to make them more focused. “Evidence shows teenagers find it hard to learn early in the morning and having a series of shorter lessons does not help them concentrate or achieve,” he says. Now students have two lessons: 9.55am-1.05pm and 1.50pm-4pm, with no free periods.
The gamble seems to have paid off: student numbers are up by 15% from last year. “I think the timetable’s really convenient,” says Sophia Vuksanovic, 17, who is studying art, English literature, history and religious studies. “It’s easier not to skip lessons, because you only have two.”
Megan Wade, 17, a student governor who is studying three A-levels and a criminology diploma, says: “You get a lot done. If classes are split up, you have more to remember.” Teachers also like it. “I was very worried about the nearly three-hour lessons, but I’m a convert,” says Sarah Hanley, who teaches religious studies at A-level. “I can do something in more depth – it makes the students more focused and organised.”
But the college’s ability to continue innovating could be at risk when the government’s review of sixth-form and further education (FE) colleges in the Solent region is published next month. Last year, ministers announced “area based reviews” (ABRs) of all 16-19 sixth-form and FE colleges in England to be completed by March 2017, aiming to create “fewer, often larger” institutions.
Last September, following pilot reviews in Nottingham and parts of Norfolk and Suffolk, the government announced that the first wave of reviews would take place in Birmingham and Solihull, Greater Manchester, Sheffield, Tees Valley, Sussex, the Solent and West Yorkshire, involving 73 colleges. The second wave was announced in December: the final three waves are due later this year.
Portsmouth college is one of 13 institutions in the Solent review. They cover a large geographical area, from Waterlooville to Brockenhurst in the New Forest, 30 miles away. Although as independent incorporated companies (unlike school sixth forms), the seven FE colleges could decide to ignore the ABR team’s recommendations, in practice, some feel that they are under pressure to consider mergers.
David Carpenter, vice-chair of governors at Portsmouth college, says: “As the process has gone on, it has become clear that we were being squeezed to try to get us to merge with other colleges. Our view is that we are in a strong place financially and in terms of results, but merger would leave us open to being taken over.”
Barry Hicks, principal of Itchen college in Southampton, says one of the review team members asked him whether Itchen, St Vincent and Richard Taunton colleges would consider merging. Hicks is not in favour of creating such a large institution: “To my mind, the benefits are only cost based.”
Other principals are more sanguine. Jan Edrich, of Eastleigh college, says: “We are in healthy position at present, but I don’t think you can rule out merger at some point in the future.” He says the review has been too rushed. “There are reasons for looking at collaboration, federation or merger that allow us to expand our offer and invest more in specialist equipment and resources. But these are longer conversations than the area review timescale allows,” she says.
Portsmouth college hopes to remain a standalone institution, but some mergers seem inevitable. In East Anglia, Great Yarmouth and two Lowestoft colleges have begun a public consultation on a merger as a result of their review; in Birmingham, Bournville college, South & City and Cadbury sixth‑form colleges could merge.
The prospect of colleges merging or even closing has so alarmed the National Union of Teachers that it held a one-day strike earlier this month by its sixth-form college members. The ballot announcement read: “The future of sixth-form colleges is at risk due to 16-19 funding cuts and area reviews which threaten merger or closure.”
According to analysis by the Sixth Form Colleges Association, colleges have lost a third of their funding since 2011, and about three-quarters of sixth-form colleges have been forced to drop courses and cut extracurricular activities. The spending review in November offered financial breathing space by protecting funding for 16-19 education in cash terms, but many colleges remain in precarious financial situations.
Some are closing. Last month, Aspire sixth-form college in Derbyshire announced it was shutting because of insufficient student numbers. Isle of Wight college has closed its sixth form to concentrate on vocational courses and in December, cash-strapped Totton college was taken over by charity Nacro because falling rolls made it no longer financially viable.
Other sixth-form colleges are considering becoming academies to save on VAT costs after the spending review announced they could apply. But with guidance published only last month, many feel they are being rushed. And for a college to become an academy is complicated, as it would first have to cease being an independent company.
Hicks says: “The academisation announcement came during our review, yet our governors were told to come up with a position paper on this within a few working days. Other areas in later waves will have much longer to decide their views.”
While more traditional sixth-form colleges may consider converting into academies, it is unlikely to make economic sense for those providing vocational education together with academic routes, or for those that accept international students. And colleges becoming academies would not have the same financial freedom to borrow money.
Itchen college won’t apply to convert, says Hicks, as it would have to stop admitting international students, who comprise 10% of its intake. Frampton says the carrot of no longer having to pay VAT by becoming an academy (colleges, being companies, have a VAT obligation) wouldn’t compensate for the loss of income from apprenticeships, higher-level qualifications and adult education. “It would also be a loss of enterprise and autonomy,” he says.
It is a similar picture elsewhere. Richard Atkins, principal of Exeter college, which most of the city’s A-level students attend, says: “We won’t convert to an academy, because it would mean we can’t borrow from banks to build and our college offers a range of university-level courses and provides over 1,800 apprenticeships, which we wouldn’t be able to do. So although we pay more than £1m in VAT, becoming an academy would still not be worth our while.”
The National Union of Students fears that mergers or closures will make it much harder for students to access the curriculum they want. Government guidance says “curriculum rationalisation” is a likely outcome of the reviews.
In the Solent, there are already subject black holes – anyone who wants to do A-level German will be out of luck at Southampton and Portsmouth, and computer science is not offered in Southampton.
Whatever the ABR says, Portsmouth college intends to carry on experimenting. Frampton wants to offer business language courses to local residents and conduct more original science research. “Only by remaining a standalone institution can we retain our innovative approach,” he says. “Hopefully the area review will recognise that.”
Schools shut sixth forms as student numbers plummet
Latest government figures show that for 2015-16, more than 1,000 school sixth forms have fewer than 200 pupils, the number that the Association of School and College Leaders has said is necessary to be economically sustainable. Of these, 88 have fewer than 50 sixth formers.
Growing numbers of schools are shutting their sixth forms: recent announcements of closures include Penketh high school in Warrington, Bournville school in Birmingham, Broomfield school in north London and Castle Manor academy in Haverhill.
Colleges believe it is unfair that the area reviews are not taking account of the financial stability and educational success of smaller sixth forms. James Kewin, the deputy chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, says “the major flaw” in the area review process is that school and academy sixth forms are not included. “Our members are being asked to eke out further efficiencies despite already delivering better outcomes than school and academy sixth forms, with more disadvantaged students, at a lower cost to the public purse”, Kewin says.
He gives the example of Greater Manchester. There are 11 sixth-form colleges; 100% are judged good or outstanding by Ofsted and the average A-level point score per student is 765. Meanwhile, in the 12 small (fewer than 50 students) sixth forms in the same area, 72% are judged as good or outstanding and the average A-level point score per student is 539.
“The students are clearly getting a much worse deal in these institutions, but it is the sixth-form colleges that are being subjected to greater scrutiny through the area reviews,” Kewin adds.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010