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Close funding gap between them and us

It appears to be one of the immutable laws of our political economy that there will never be sufficient state cash to support properly an obvious societal good such as free education. As a result, managing hardship is the norm in education and is, possibly, even a perverse badge of honour.

It is tempting to imagine a meeting between representatives from the primary, secondary, FE and university sectors descending into something resembling Monty Python's Four Yorkshiremen sketch. "Oh, we used to dream of livin' in a corridor!"

The likelihood is, of course, that FE would be the Eric Idle character whose hardships would trump the other sectors.

That the current funding gap between schools and colleges is as high as 20 per cent (page 1) is little short of scandalous. Why a gap of this size exists between two arms of the state-funded education system delivering the same qualifications to the same 16-18 age group is hard to understand.

Some may say that the Sixth Form Colleges' Forum throws into the equation everything, including the cost of kitchen sinks and other fittings for the capital projects awaiting approval from the Learning and Skills Council. As such, it does not offer an accurate comparison of the actual money available for teaching.

It is true that the 20 per cent covers a great deal. But surely this means it more accurately reflects the real-life difference in resources made available to our schools compared to our colleges for delivering the same education. Even if we look at cash per student in isolation, schools are still almost Pounds 90 per pupil better off than colleges.

It is miraculous that college students continue to perform as well as they do compared with their better-funded school peers. If there is a badge of honour to be worn it should refer to the efficiency with which colleges deliver 16-18 education.

This is not a case of inverse we-were-poorer-that-you one-upmanship. And no one is suggesting that schools receive too much money for 16- to 18- year-olds. College funding must rise to something approaching the level of schools. However, given the ongoing rationing of funding for state education, colleges are right to question the deployment of resources currently.

Is it the most rational and efficient use of scarce public resources to support myriad small school sixth forms created, in many cases, to meet the self-interest of small groups of parents and local politicians' ambitions?

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