By Mike Baker
BBC education correspondent
Are school sixth forms under threat?
Could they be swept away as part of a nationwide review of post-16 education?
They certainly think so in Hastings, East Sussex, where six schools could lose theirs under proposals from the Learning and Skills Council.
It is just one of several areas where concerns over the future of sixth forms are starting to bubble to the surface. Cumbria and Bristol have experienced strong turbulence.
You may not yet have heard of strategic area reviews but the chances are you will do soon as they spread throughout England.
'Closing and merging'
They are run by the 47 local offices of the Learning and Skills Council (LSC). Their brief is to investigate the overall educational provision for students over the age of 16.
If they are happy with the system they can leave it alone but, if they are not, they have legal powers to propose wide-ranging changes, including the closing or merging of school sixth forms.
Because of its size and wealth, many regard the LSC as the 800lb gorilla of the education landscape which can easily squash school sixth forms if it wishes to.
The timetable of the reviews means there will be more proposals over the next year or so. Every area of the country will be affected in one form or another.
This means the future of sixth forms could become a sensitive issue in the run-up to the next election.
In Hastings, the plan is to create a new further education college catering for around 3,000 full-time and 10,000 part-time students. As a result, six schools for pupils aged 11 to 18 would be re-designated as 11 to 16 schools.
Some sixth forms fear strong-arm tactics by the LSC
Danielle Johnson, deputy head teacher at one of those affected, says she is convinced the aim is the "death of school sixth forms" in the area.
Her own school - the combined sixth forms of Helenswood Arts College and William Parker Sports College - has a thriving, 350-strong sixth form.
Although there is a choice of further education colleges and a sixth form college in the area, 56% of the students at her school choose to stay on for the sixth form.
A poll of parents at her school showed, she says, 90% opposed to the LSC plan. A wider survey conducted by the local newspaper found 75% opposed to closure of the sixth forms.
As yet, there are no signs of the plan being withdrawn.
A similar plan in Carlisle involved closing seven school sixth forms and replacing them with one large sixth form college. But strong opposition to the plan led to it being shelved.
In Bristol, parents at Cotham School are concerned at threats to their sixth form as part of the LSC's plans for a new post-16 college in the north of the city. They have formed an action group to fight the plans.
Schools and parents are concerned that they face an uphill battle opposing the proposals of the LSC, which holds the purse strings for all funding for sixth-form education.
They believe local education authorities are likely to fall into line with the plans as the only way of getting money for new buildings.
The LSC has legal authority either to close a sixth form or to open a sixth form college, although the final decisions lie with the secretary of state.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, is sufficiently concerned about the threat to sixth forms to have issued guidance to his members.
He says the reviews have "created anxiety among head teachers, particularly where the Learning and Skills Council has failed to give them an adequate say in the process".
His advice to head teachers is to get together and formulate their own proposals to submit to the LSC.
No secret agenda
One fear is that in an area with small, possibly weak, sixth forms the LSC may propose creating a single sixth form college. While that may be reasonable as far as those schools are concerned, it might also spell the end of successful and popular sixth forms nearby.
However the LSC insists there is no secret agenda to move from small school sixth forms to larger colleges.
Rob Wye, the LSC director in charge of the reviews, says "there is no predisposition in any direction" nor any view that "big is beautiful".
However, he says there may be places where small sixth forms are unable to offer students a wide range of courses and places where sixth form provision is not very good. In these cases, he says, they will "ask serious questions".
There will be more proposals for changes to post-16 education over the next year, as there is an expectation of some changes in every part of the country, although these will not always involve closures or mergers.
School reorganisations are always difficult and changes to sixth forms especially so.
So, watch this space as proposals for the rest of the country are published.
Only then will it emerge whether or not there is a general threat to sixth forms or just to those which are not doing a good job.
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