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Editorial - Is this a ploy to bleed sixth forms dry?

Budget cuts pit schools against colleges and it's the brightest students who will suffer

There is universal condemnation of a 7.43 per cent funding cut for sixth forms. The Assembly government has been branded "stupid", "mad" and "unreasonable" in a week when funding - or lack of it - comes under fire and schools shiver at the thought of sub-zero temperatures and budgets.

Once again, the government faces a wave of protest; there hasn't been so much united opposition since the foundation phase funding fiasco last year. How can so many be wrong?

The government bases its decision to cut sixth-form budgets on equitable outcomes: adult learners have had a raw deal in FE colleges, and the government is seeking to redress this injustice. Their motives appear altruistic.

But the implication is that secondary schools have never had it so good. Most heads would beg to differ. The sad fact is that education funding is woefully inadequate in Wales, despite seemingly soaring investment since devolution. As the government's own figures show, England invests almost Pounds 500 more per pupil than Wales. So teachers' unions can be forgiven for not realising they are so privileged.

That's not to say that opportunities for adult learners aren't important - it's just a shame that one or the other has to suffer. Yes, there are hard times ahead, but to strip at short notice almost 7.5 per cent from 2009-10 post-16 funding will surely set the cat among the pigeons. It also makes no sense when Wales needs a skilled young workforce to catapult us out of the economic downturn.

So are the cuts a ploy to finish off sixth forms for good, as Gareth Jones, of teachers' union ASCL Cymru, suspects? Last week, TES Cymru unveiled the government's vision of learning centres - a mix between a schools and a college that offers students the best of both worlds - in Carmarthenshire. The proposals have several attractions, but selling the idea in the leafy suburbs will be tough. It is ironic that, just as proposals are being made to relax the requirement on schools and colleges to collaborate (page 6), a huge sixth-form budget cut should hit the headlines, pitting them against each other once more. Is the intention to bleed small sixth forms dry, rendering them untenable?

An education funding war appears to have been unleashed in Wales, and this is one fight that will militate against collaboration between schools and colleges and against the government's vision for parity of esteem between academic and vocational education. It's a shame that the A-level or vocationally equivalent student will play piggy in the middle.

But until students in Wales have a level playing field with their peers in England, this argument will continue to hold back progress at a time when - as clearly indicated in the chief inspector of schools' recently published annual report - Welsh education policy is not only failing its most impoverished students, but also its brightest.

Nicola Porter, E:

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