Baroness Berridge speech to Sixth Form Colleges Association

Good morning and thank you for inviting me here today to talk about our educational recovery that is under way, and how sixth form colleges are part of the solution.

The problem which I believe they can help solve is how, in a post-pandemic world, we make sure that no child or young person is left behind by Covid-19.

We are all gathered here today in circumstances we wish were different, because Covid-19 has undoubtedly resulted in a loss of learning for many children. Young people have, in equal measure, lost out on extra-curricular activities, time with their teachers and friends, and we know there has been a tragic increase in mental health problems.

We are also gathered here today because we share a belief in the power of education – and in particular that sixth form colleges play a vital role in helping young people take the next step in life – be that higher education, an apprenticeship or the workplace.

This is not a new view, and there are so many Sixth Form Colleges I could point to. Take Abbeygate 6th Form College in Suffolk, which successfully opened in September 2020 with 630 pupils. Or Suffolk One Sixth Form College in Ipswich, an inclusive sixth Form College which received an outstanding Ofsted Report in May 2015, followed by excellent examination results for its first four cohorts.

Both are run by the Suffolk Academies Trust, with Suffolk College acting as the sponsor of the trust. They offer more than 30 A Level courses to 16-19-year-olds from across the whole of West Suffolk.

What I would like to speak to you about today is how we continue to work together to ensure more and more sixth form colleges can strive toward these high standards.

I believe that to do this we must continue to strive toward the academisation of the sixth form sector.

The conversion process is necessarily a complex one, and I do appreciate that it can feel frustrating at times. I am committed to working with you to make it as straightforward as possible.

In May, the Education Secretary communicated his vision for the schools system, with every for every school to be part of a family of schools in a strong multi academy trust.

Our ambition is for more schools to benefit from being part of a strong family because multi-academy trusts are focused on advancing education for the public benefit – and we know from the data they can deliver clear benefits for teaching and pupil outcomes.

Indeed, MATs are contracted to advance education in the public benefit, to act for the benefit of the wider community, and not just those under their roof.

What we have seen with the multi academy trust model, time and time again, is our strongest leaders taking responsibility for supporting more schools, using the trust structure to develop career routes and effective professional development for teachers.

Importantly, these trusts are taking care of the vital finance, estates and HR functions that frees up time for school leaders to focus on teaching, learning and a curriculum. In other words, teachers can do more of what they do best: teach, which drives improved outcomes for learners.

Throughout the pandemic, I was humbled to see the magnificent work of our teachers and leaders who have gone above and beyond their normal roles. Thank you to those many Sixth Form Colleges that have adapted to new ways of transitional working, including the creation of online portals to provide subject matter material.

We also saw some of our strongest multi-academy trusts responding quickly, directing resources to the schools that need them, supporting teachers to concentrate on frontline teaching.

Following their autumn visits, Ofsted reported that many schools in trusts had found the support they received to be invaluable. What they found further cements our belief in the unique strength of the academy trust model – and I want to see more and more schools to take advantage.

Today over 50% of pupils in state-funded education study in academies. This includes pupils who study in 16-19 academies – with these institutions providing access to a wide range of advanced-level qualifications.

We remain focused on creating a world-class education system that offers a real choice of high-quality technical education and training equal in esteem to academic routes.

I know that many 16-19 institutions are already part of a multi-academy trust and are realising some of the benefits such as the opportunity to develop staff via experience in multiple institutions and the closer links between different phases that can be enabled by a multi-school structure.

It is this opportunity for 16-19 institutions to work collaboratively together, extending the reach of high-quality leadership and teaching within a framework of strong accountability for outcomes that this Government is encouraging.

I am pleased that more of the Sixth Form College sector is taking up this opportunity – motivated of course by a relentless focus on delivering the best outcomes for learners.

Take Harington School, a 16-19 free school which opened in the town of Oakham in September 2015. It is one of three schools run by the Rutland
and District Schools Federation multi-academy trust.

It offers eighteen A level courses, each taught by subject specialists, alongside an academic enrichment programme that includes musical scholarships, leadership, and sporting opportunities.

The result of this is that the school was judged by Ofsted to be outstanding in all areas in January 2017, with inspectors noting that “teachers’ expectations of students are very high, and they are unrelenting in their pursuit of student success.”

Or take Thomas Rotherham College, which joined Inspire Trust, offering A-Levels and vocational studies to nearly 1700 young people in Rotherham and surrounding areas.

The college was judged to be good in all areas at a full Ofsted inspection in October 2019 having previously been judged as requires improvement in January 2018.

Joining the MAT has enabled the college to work closely with the neighbouring secondary academy to provide a wide range of post-16 subjects.

The Ofsted report in October 2019 stated that: “Leaders successfully provide a curriculum that meets the needs of the local community of Rotherham and the surrounding area.”

These are just two examples of the 61 16-19 academies and free schools that are now open.

Of these, 43 of these are part of trusts that support more than one academy – meaning they receive even more support by sharing best practice with one another.

This has been evident at New College Pontefract, which converted and became a central force in New Collaborative Learning Trust.

This included operating common systems across all three colleges for pedagogy, finance, resourcing, IT, HR and leadership with the parent college’s exceptional performance used as the touchstone for standards across the family.

Aside from the financial benefits, the change meant more career development for teachers and brought more choice for students.

Although we are clear that our aspiration is to move to a single school system, with every school as part of a family of schools – we recognise there are a number of standalone trusts in the sector.

One trust I’d like to highlight, which has taken the decision to form its own MAT, is East Norfolk Sixth Form College. It is a school that took control of its own destiny, by taking the bold step in August 2018.

I know that the decision was driven by a desire to build on its positive reputation and solid educational provision, by becoming a centre of excellence in the region and driving higher standards in post-16 education across the whole of Norfolk – and I very much look forward to seeing what it achieves.

Like these institutions, we will continue to set out the benefits of the multi-academy trust model, however we know that joining or forming a multi-academy trust remains a decision that is taken carefully by trust boards.

I urge standalone institutions to consider the benefits of joining a multi-academy trust or establishing their own in partnership with others, and I want leaders to know they will have our full support in doing so.

We are committed to this because as we build back better after this pandemic, we all need to take action that boosts outcomes for young people.

In the Spending Review 2020, this government committed an additional capital investment of £83 million in 2021-22 to ensure that post-16 providers can accommodate the expected demographic increase in 16 to 19-year-olds in coming years.

This demonstrates an additional investment in a sector that the government has shown it is serious in supporting to provide a boost to the economy and the education system.  

On 18 May, we launched the open bidding round for this £83 million, to which Sixth Form Colleges, 16 – 19 academies, 16 – 19 Free Schools (inclusive of University Technical Colleges and Maths Schools), and Further Education Colleges can bid for projects to add extra capacity where there is a pressing need. I strongly encourage your members to do so.

Where a provider can demonstrate an acute need for new high-quality buildings and facilities, this investment will ensure there are sufficient places for 16 – 19 learners in their area to gain the skills they need to progress and help the economy to grow.

Additionally, and as many of you will be aware, we have put reforming post-16 education and skills at the heart of our plans to build back better and level up this country.

We are making the changes because, as you will all agree, it is simply wrong to think there is only one route up the career ladder.

Apprenticeships, including higher and degree apprenticeships, provide excellent routes into high-skilled occupations in the economy. The Government’s reforms have transformed apprenticeships into a prestigious, employer-led programme.

I encourage more of your members to engage with employers and other partners, including higher education providers, to offer these opportunities.

On my recent visits to Doncaster and Ron Dearing University Technical Colleges, I met with some inspiring students embarking on dream apprenticeships at Jaguar Land Rover, Airbus, and the Merchant Navy. I heard first-hand how important it is to have an education that provides a clear pathway into employment. This showcases the vital role of technical education in equipping young people with the skills and knowledge that employers need.

Our vision is to transform the qualifications landscape and expand opportunity right across the country, so that more people can get the skills they need to get good jobs.

Because right now in our country there are skills shortages in a host of sectors, and businesses are crying out for more skilled employees.

Clearly, inaction is not going to change this situation.

That is why we introduced our Skills for Jobs White Paper, which will act as a blueprint in setting out the bold reforms we will introduce to support post-16 education – and put employers at the heart of the system.

We have brought forward legislation to underpin these reforms through the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, which was introduced to Parliament in May. I am very proud to be the Minister taking the Bill through the House of Lords, which aims to ensure that the system is set up to deliver for decades to come.

The changes are wide-ranging, and one further element I’m particularly excited by is the rollout of T Levels, which will offer a highly prestigious and credible technical and practical alternative to A levels – based on the best technical education systems in the world.

To deliver these wide-ranging changes, we are undertaking a review of qualifications at Level 3 and below. We are doing this because we recognise the need to improve the overall qualifications offer so that all qualifications are of an equally high quality.

First and foremost, we need to ensure that they are relevant, necessary and will lead to positive outcomes for all students, whatever their background.

We have set out this vision in two consultations.

These consultations proposed creating two clearly defined paths: academic, meaning qualifications leading to further study, and technical, those qualifications that will lead to skilled employment.

T Levels will be the primary way of delivering technical skills for 16-to-19-year-olds, while on the academic path A levels will be the qualifications of choice for the majority of students progressing to our world leading universities.

I also want to take this opportunity to thank you for your contributions to our second stage consultation on level 3 qualifications, which asked for views on the range of qualifications that should sit alongside A levels and T Levels in future.

The consultation recognised that we will continue to need a small number of other, high quality, qualifications, including those in the performing arts.

We intend to publish our response to this before the summer break, setting out the changes that will be implemented following the review and the timeline for change – and I look forward to your continued engagement in this important area of work.

As your membership of large standalone sixth form providers continues to grow, I congratulate and encourage your efforts to continue to provide high performance outcomes.

I have every faith that if we can continue to work together, as we have as a sector since the very first sixth forms founded, we can deliver meaningful changes for young people for generations to come.

Thank you so much for inviting me to speak here today, I now welcome your questions.

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