Colleges have the edge on schools when it comes to improving students' A-level performance. Analysis by exam boards reveals that college passes at grade E have increased by 4.6 per cent since 2002, and A-grades have increased at the same rate. In comprehensives with sixth forms, the pass rate has increased by only 2.7 per cent over the same period. For A-grades, school passes went up 3.9 per cent.
But while colleges are beating their comprehensive rivals in terms of grade improvement since 2002, they are still outstripped by private and selective state schools.
Joy Mercer, quality manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC), said much of the improvement could be attributed to the quality of teaching. Ofsted inspections have shown steady improvement since 2002, resulting in record numbers of colleges being rated outstanding.
"Sixth form colleges can offer a wider range of courses and are offering courses which schools are too small to provide, subjects like Latin and even physics," Ms Mercer said.
She said the planning of the Learning and Skills Council since its creation in 2001, and the new sixth form colleges, have contributed to the success of further education. However, she conceded the praise comes "too late" for the council, which will be abolished by 2010 when responsibility for education up to 19 will be restored to local authorities.
Some principals have raised concerns about the ability of local authorities to maintain an objective view of the potential of sixth form and further education colleges.
Ms Mercer believes the performance of colleges is likely to remain high because the rise in Ofsted grades has proved their ability to manage their own destiny.
The performance of colleges and other training providers in improving vocational pass rates is to be made public as part of vocational qualifications day. The first such day was held on July 23, when national pass rates were published by the Edge Foundation, the charity that promotes practical training. This means that any trends in performance will be apparent from next year onwards.
While the Edge Foundation and colleges continue to make the case for vocational qualifications, the AoC hopes the latest A-level research will highlight colleges' ability to compete with schools in delivering academic qualifications.