Heading to the general election - five reflections on 16-18 education  

By James Kewin

The general election is getting ever closer. We need to consider what the future might hold for 16-18 education in England. And we need to be clear about the changes the next government must make – whatever the outcome of the general election – to ensure that every 16–18-year-old receives a world class education. 

The Sixth Form Colleges Association has identified five policy ideas which the main political parties with MPs representing parliamentary constituencies in England should adopt. 

1. Prepare for the population bulge 

We will hear a lot about an ageing population when the manifestos are published. But the issue of a rising population is not only confined to older citizens. The number of 16-to-18 year olds is on the rise as well, including those in full-time education. 

The IFS estimates that an additional 170,000 students have entered sixth form education since 2019, and projects a further increase in participation beyond 2024. As a result, sixth form colleges are squeezing more and more 16- to 18-year-olds into already overcrowded classrooms or turning students away. 

As a general principle, we believe expanding existing high-performing institutions offers better value for money (it is a lot cheaper to do), at lower risk (they already have a proven track record), than opening new free schools.  

To make this a reality, the next government should create a dedicated 16 to 18 capital expansion fund that operates on an annual basis and keeps bureaucracy to an absolute minimum.   

2. Pause and review the plan to scrap BTECs 

It takes a lot to dislodge funding from the top of the priority charts, but the ongoing debacle of Level 3 qualification reform has managed to do just that. SFCA co-ordinates the Protect Student Choice campaign aimed at reversing the government’s disastrous plan to scrap applied general qualifications (AGQs) like BTECs and replace them with T levels.  

We are delighted that both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have adopted the campaign’s recommendation to pause and review this plan (so it is a bit of a cheat to include on this list) but we are now pressing for a more specific commitment that students will be able to enrol on all BTECs up to and including the 2026/27 academic year. 

The next government should also make a commitment to retain the current three-route system of A levels, T levels and AGQs and refocus the current reform of Level 3 qualifications on approving qualifications within this framework. This should be accompanied by a review of T levels to identify the key adaptations and flexibilities needed to ensure they can play a more meaningful role in the future qualifications landscape. 

3. Raise the rate of core funding for 16- to 18-year-olds  

A new government is unlikely to have a lot of additional money to spend, at least in the short term, but increasing core funding for 16- to 18-year-olds should be a high priority. Raising the rate is the only way to ensure that funding is made available in a way that enables colleges and schools to tailor resources to meet the individual needs of students.  

According to London Economics, the rate will need to be raised by at least £710 per student by 2025 simply to keep pace with inflation and ensure that all sixth form college students receive the support they need to successfully complete their studies.   

Eye-catching, but hypothecated funding initiatives are no substitute for a sufficient level of core funding. And if a new government cannot raise the rate immediately, it must at least provide colleges and schools with more control over the funding they do receive.  

4. Cut bureaucracy  

Bureaucracy bedevils 16 to 18 education. It is a particular issue for colleges, as new duties and requirements are introduced on a regular basis, but existing duties and requirements are rarely removed. The autonomy of colleges has been steadily eroded over the past decade and this trend has been exacerbated by recent reforms to the FE sector and the changes that have accompanied reclassification.  

The next government should extend much more autonomy to all providers of 16 to 18 education. The current micro-management should be replaced by a high-trust model of delivery where college and school leaders have the freedom to tailor their curriculum and resources to meet the individual needs of students.  

This is one area where a new government could achieve a lot more, by doing a lot less.  

5. Co-ordinate 16 to 18 policymaking  

There is currently no coherent or co-ordinated approach to developing education policy for 16- to 18-year-olds in England. There are ‘college’ policies and ‘schools’ policies but these are largely developed in isolation from each other.  

As a result, there are significant variations in how 16 to 18 institutions are funded, inspected and held to account. There is also little co-ordination in market entry which has led to duplication of 16 to 18 provision in many areas and has often delivered poor value for money.  

A next government should create a dedicated 16 to 18 directorate within the Department for Education with responsibility for all providers of sixth form education. Policymaking would be more effective if it focused on the age range of students rather than the legal status of the institutions they happen to attend. 

James Kewin is Deputy Chief Executive at the Sixth Form Colleges Association