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Editor's comment

A long-standing government commitment to close the funding gap with schools will be achieved - not by a levelling up but a scaling down. The development now seems inescapable.

When the Learning and Skills Council took control of sixth-form funding, ministers guaranteed that schools would not lose cash in the medium term.

Bryan Sanderson, the then chairman of the council made clear in an interview with FE Focus that he did not approve. The pledge limited scope for reform and flexibility to assist colleges. And indeed, the gap - then reckoned to be around 13 per cent - has narrowed only to 10 per cent.

The injustice is highlighted in a critical report from the Government's official internal watchdog. As the Commons select committee on education put it: "It makes no sense that a student undertaking a course at a further education college should, other things being equal, be less well funded than a student at a local school. The Secretary of State appears to recognise that truth, but progress towards equal funding is painfully slow.

Greater urgency is needed. FE colleges should not be seen as a means of providing education on the cheap."

While the report says college funding has risen by 53 per cent (when student numbers went up 13 per cent) since 1998, this was outstripped by growth in school budgets. Added to which, much of the growth went in unexpected increases in National Insurance and pension costs.

If colleges really are under-performing, as chief inspector David Bell says, more cash is needed. Again, the select committee points out:

"Increased investment will also help to address the issues concerning teachers that the Secretary of State referred to. Better pay for teachers and improvements in training, which have recently been put forward by the Government, should also help to address these problems of poor achievement."

So, when the sixth-form funding guarantees end this autumn, what can colleges expect? Not a lot. Government priorities for 2006 will be university funding and the reform of schools - already given more freedom to open new sixth forms. It is also clear that parent power will be at the heart of the election manifesto. This does not suggest greater flexibility for the LSC to shift cash to colleges, other than at the margins of 14-19 partnerships.

Unless all political parties give specific manifesto commitments to colleges, FE can expect the worst.

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