Monday 15 March 2010

Competing for customers

More and more counties are now preparing their plans to re-organise secondary education at the behest of the Assembly Government, and it seems that more and more counties are going to find themselves in the sort of battles which people in Carmarthenshire have been fighting for many months already.

Although not all the councils are coming up with completely identical solutions, the similarity of approach seems to me to undermine the oft-repeated claim by the Assembly Government that this is not being driven from the centre. I have suspected for some time that whatever is being said publicly, this is, in practice, a central agenda, being driven by a combination of carrot and stick.

Part of the rationale, of course, is the Measure passed by the Assembly under which it has been decreed that all pupils must have a choice of at least 30 subjects in years 12 and 13. Whilst there are good arguments for ensuring a wide range of choice, ultimately the figure of 30 is pretty arbitrary. Why not 29, or 31?

But the effect of the number is highly significant, and is leading directly to the closure of some sixth forms, and the merger of others. It's been set at a level which effectively guarantees that counties will have to close or merge a number of smaller secondary schools. I do not believe that is merely coincidental. It's surprising that this arbitrary decision has not been more strongly challenged.

Another factor is the way in which FE colleges were given such a high degree of independence that they are now directly competing with schools for 'customers' (pupils or students to the rest of us!). Yes, that's right, in some of our most rural areas, where critical mass is so important in enabling viable numbers on courses, we have two sets of institutions competing for students, and offering the same courses in the process.

It's set to get worse. Although, in theory, schools and FE colleges can collaborate to reduce duplication, it seems to me that, on current direction of travel, FE colleges – currently looking at mergers and consolidations anyway - will be subsumed into HE institutions in the fairly near future. The result will be that 'school' education finishes at year 11 (GCSE year), and education beyond that happens at multi-campus HE institutions.

That may be the right thing to do, although I happen to be highly sceptical about it. But my real concern is that it is happening by stealth, without adequate public debate or scrutiny.

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