ENGLAND's headteachers fear new funding arrangements for post-16 education and training will spell the end of their freedom to spend money allocated for sixth-formers in other areas of their schools and could force many smaller sixth forms to close.
In April, the Learning and Skills Act comes into force. Heralding a radical overhaul of post-16 study, the reforms are designed to squeeze out surplus places and focus funding on good-quality academic and vocational courses.
But the reforms, which include stringent new inspections of post-16 courses, pose questions about the future of small school sixth forms. Although the new Learning and Skills Council takes charge of planning and funding post-16 learning in April, it only takes over the funding of sixth forms next year.
A government consultation exercise on whether sixth forms should be funded on a per-pupil or per-course basis, which is favoured by the Secondary Heads Association, finishes next week. Ministers are expected to make an announcement early next month. Plans for Welsh sixth forms are still to be finalised.
The SHA believes that even though money will be coming into schools from two sources, it should still go into one pot, enabling headteachers to continue spending cash where they believe it is most needed.
Any restrictions on doing so might not only affect the quality of the post-16 courses they offer, but could also starve 11 to 16 courses of vital funds. It is currently common practice for schools to subsidise A-level courses with money earmarked for pupils lower down the school, and vice versa.
SHA general secretary John Dunford said: "Although schools will be getting pre-16 funds from local education authorities and post-16 from the LSC, one of our bottom lines has always been that they must be able to switch money from one to the other.
"Schools must know how they are viring and why, but we firmly believe that, under the principles of fair funding, schools should have the freedom to move money about."
He said this was no diffrent from other organisations or businesses which had different income streams. The SHA's demands come as fears mount among headteachers that the new funding process will be just another lever to squeeze many of England's 1,770 sixth forms out of existence.
Although Mr Dunford doubts that ministers would want to be held as responsible for forcing the closure of hundreds of sixth forms - given their popularity with middle England - a new post-16 inspection regime will mean that the comparative costs and quality of school and college provision will be in the spotlight and may help shift public opinion.
Government figures revealed last year that exam results of students in sixth forms with fewer than 50 pupils were 40 per cent lower than the national average. A separate survey by the National Association of Head Teachers revealed how, on average, schools spend pound;1,500 more than colleges for each student taking three A-levels.
Mike Tomlinson, the chief inspector of schools, said in his annual report earlier this month that both attainment and progress at A-level was generally higher in larger sixth forms. Lack of strategic direction in many inner-city areas had led to duplication, waste and patchy 16 to 19 education.
The curriculum was "very restricted" in a quarter of sixth forms below 100 students.
A third were judged by HMI to be not cost-effective with uneconomic classes and low completion and success rates.
Although Education Secretary David Blunkett has promised that school sixth-form funding will not fall, as long as student numbers stay the same, headteachers are not totally convinced of his commitment to their future.
VITAL STATS: FE VS SCHOOLS
* There are 103 sixth-form colleges and 1,770 schools with sixth forms.
* According to a National Association of Head Teachers survey last autumn, school sixth forms receive, on average, pound;2,868 per pupil.
* On average, according to the survey, colleges spent pound;1,368 to pound;1,500 less per pupil.
* 648,400 students aged 16 to 18 in FEcolleges.
* 300,000 students aged 16 to 18 in school sixth forms.
Statistics apply to England only