Clause 46 - Sixth forms requiring significant improval

Education Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 22nd March 2005.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I wonder whether I can tempt the Minister into a slightly wider debate. Clause 46 is fairly innocuous, and schedule 5 is unbearably dull, but there is a significant issue about what kind of inspection regime will prevail in sixth forms. The Government’s change in policy raises the possibility of there being a   multiplication of sixth forms in many LEAs, with 11 to 16 schools having the opportunity to exert their right to develop sixth-form provision.

The Minister will be aware that, historically, there has been quite a debate in many LEAs about rationalising sixth-form provision, with the object of ensuring that it is high quality across the LEA. He will also be aware that the profile of certain sixth forms is somewhat similar to that of a further education college—many of the students do not do the standard 11 to 18 school A-level or AS courses, but pursue various vocational or semi-vocational courses.

Given that environment, some embryonic sixth forms will be inspected and found not to exhibit the classic profile that sixth forms are expected to exhibit. They will perhaps have small numbers at first, or people will be doing a limited range of subjects. I want the Minister’s assurance that, if schools go down that road, they will not find themselves in dire straits. If they have something like a sixth form, it may be vulnerable to severe criticism when an inspection takes place. I would like him to acknowledge intellectually that the scenario about which I am speculating could occur—perhaps he would like to reassure me that it could not—and that when it does, whatever form of inspection we have will be appropriately tailored to take account of what the new embryonic sixth form has been allowed to become in the limited time in which it has been allowed to evolve.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Minister of State (Education and Skills) (School Standards)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. It is a consequence of something that we set out in the five-year strategy for the Department for Education and Skills, which was published in July 2004. He will know that we have been consulting on the proposal to make it easier for a school that does not have a sixth form to open one. We are certainly not saying that we want a free-for-all, which would not be in the interests of learners or, indeed, schools themselves. We are saying that we want a proper quality choice of institutions and courses in each neighbourhood. The 14 to 19 challenge provides an opportunity for institutions to work more closely together. I understand the scenario that he describes and I accept that it is a possibility. I think it unlikely because a school that introduces a proposal to open a sixth form will have to consult other local providers and talk to the Learning and Skills Council. Will it be in the interests of that school to open a sixth form that is unlikely to be viable?

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 11:00 am, 22nd March 2005

The Minister has mentioned a quality threshold, and that is entirely sensible. Is there a quantity threshold? Is there an animus—I used the word on Second Reading—against a sixth form of fewer than 100 students?

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Minister of State (Education and Skills) (School Standards)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a series of area reviews is being conducted by the Learning and Skills Council to consider precisely that question. I do not believe that we can set an absolute national quantity threshold because what may be an appropriate quantity in inner-city London or   Manchester may not make sense for a rural school serving a sparsely populated area. The key starting point has to be the availability of the necessary range of courses and qualifications for children and young people. Of course, with technology, there are opportunities for distance learning, video conferencing and so on, so there cannot be an absolute figure.

I would accept, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman would, that we have sixth forms that are not viable in practice. I have seen reviews during the work I have been doing in London, where schools that have sixth forms with quite small numbers of students have agreed to give up their sixth forms and to support a sixth form college as a solution in the best interests of learning in their area. That demonstrates that one size fits all is not an appropriate way to deal with the matter. Different solutions are suitable for different parts of the country.

To comment on the clause, the term

“Sixth forms requiring significant improvement” reflects the new significant improvement category of schools causing concern introduced by clause 44. Currently, a school may be judged on inspection to have an inadequate sixth form. In future, such a school will be categorised as having a sixth form that requires significant improvement. It is simply a part of the simplification of categories and I therefore recommend that the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 46 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 5 agreed to.

Clauses 47 to 50 ordered to stand part of the Bill.