The popular perception of sixth-form colleges as highly selective institutions that focus on preparing star pupils to enter top universities has been challenged by the findings of new research, writes Tony Tysome.
A countrywide study has found that colleges are shaking off their elitist image and recruiting more students with few academic qualifications and from deprived areas.
About one in seven of the 105 sixth-form colleges in England takes more than half of its students from the country's poorest regions, and a fifth recruit between a quarter and a half of their students from such areas.
A growing number of colleges are also welcoming students who have few academic qualifications and putting them on courses leading to the award of A levels or the vocational equivalent.
Many are now outperforming both general further education colleges and independent school sixth forms in raising the attainment of such students to a level at which they can gain entry to higher education.
The study, by researchers at the Learning and Skills Development Agency, showed that some colleges were taking students with three grade C GCSEs and helping them to gain three A-level passes with, on average, a C and two Ds. This success gave them a score for the "value added" by their education, which is measured in GCSE points at entry compared with Universities and Colleges Admissions Service points at exit, that was better than any institution in the country.
While colleges that were more selective in their entry requirements tended to do better in the A-level results league tables, their "value added" scores were significantly worse.