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'Cynical' ministersmiss 14-19 chance

Colleges say rejection of Tomlinson shows that Labour cares more about votes than vocational learning

College leaders and unions rounded angrily on the Government this week when they condemned the rejection of the Tomlinson reforms as "a wasted opportunity".

The decision in the 14-19 white paper to keep A-levels separate from the main vocation diploma was dismissed by most college employer organisations and staff unions as "cynical" electioneering.

Dr John Brennan, Association of Colleges' chief executive, said: "The white paper is a wasted opportunity. The Government has once again underlined its commitment to academic above vocational education.

"Instead of 'a radical transformation' of vocational education, Ruth Kelly... has done little more than describe the provision already offered by local colleges, who cater for two out of three 16 to 19-year-olds.

"What the Government does not do - a matter which might be viewed as hypocrisy - is reveal that it allows the spectre of secondary-modern education to continue to haunt Britain."

He highlighted the Government's three "failings". First was the refusal to raise the status of vocational learning to that of academic. Second, ministers had failed to address funding discrimination against 16 to 19-year-olds in colleges, which left the average college pound;500,000 worse off compared with schools.

Third, they failed to give colleges the ability to pay staff on a par with school teachers, he said.

As a result of longer-term failings, he said, lecturers in one in six colleges across England were taking industrial action in protest at an 8 per cent gap between the salaries of full-time school teachers and college lecturers.

"The interests of the hundreds of thousands of 14 to 19-year-olds taking vocational courses - the vast majority of whom study in colleges - will continue to be neglected," added Dr Brennan.

But there was one clear plus for colleges, he said, on 14-16 learning. "We welcome the Government's commitment to expanding vocational learning opportunities for the 14-16 age group through partnerships between colleges and schools (as recommended by Tomlinson)."

But the view of employers and unions was that, in diluting Sir Mike's reforms, the Government left vocational education stuck with its "second-class" image.

Natfhe, the lecturers' union, said a diploma that combined the vocational and academic was essential if inequalities in the current system were to be removed.

Dan Taubman, the union's national official, said: "Rejection of the over-arching diploma - the principal recommendation of Tomlinson - is extremely disappointing. We are angry because, after all that hard work, England will be left with the same damaging division between academic and vocational qualifications. The Government may have good intentions to introduce a new vocational qualification but we feel this is highly likely to reinforce the perception of vocational studies as second-class and also as a remedial route."

Natfhe welcomed the 14-16 proposals. As it campaigns for higher pay, the union will seize on Sir Mike's declaration that pay parity between school and colleges - as well as equal funding for the same students doing the same types of course - is essential if his vocational proposals are to work.

The scrapping of A-levels and GCSEs is also supported by David Bell, head of the Office for Standards in Education, and Sir Anthony Greener, chairman of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

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