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Fallout from A-level cash plan

Schools which have decided to ban college staff from their premises after it launched a Pounds 250 cash incentive scheme to entice A-level students will be told by ministers that they are breaking the law.

Education minister James Paice has condemned the scheme offered by Trowbridge College in Wiltshire as part of its drive to boost its student numbers.

From next September, Trowbridge College intends to resume A-level courses after a three-year break. Students will receive the money if they pass in three subjects and gain a university place.

The move by Trowbridge has already offended other FE colleges since it is rIFrER__rGLPARRY_rEI_anst a code of ethics drawn up last year by the Association for Colleges.

The scheme has created uproar. Several schools in West Wiltshire now refuse to allow the college's college representatives on their premises and have banned its prospectus from their libraries.

The matter has been taken up by Mr Paice who, in a letter to Westbury MP David Faber said: "I would not wish to discourage healthy rivalry which could drive up standards. However, this sort of scheme may lead to wasteful competition if other institutions attempt to match or top up the incentives offered."

But ministers are said to be alarmed by the "over-reaction" from schools whose ban on college information to students may infringe recent employment and education legislation.

Mr Paice conceded that the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 permits colleges to do anything "which appears necessary or expedient in the exercise of any of their powers" when providing FE. But of the Trowbridge College proposal, he added: "This cannot be good value for money and I do not welcome or endorse this sort of activity."

Mr Faber has also deplored the scheme. "I understand the concerns of other sixth forms in the area who, operating on their school budgets, seem unable to compete," he said. Trowbridge College principal George Bright said he was astonished by the minister's reaction, and rejected any notion of bribery. "It has been common practice in youth credits and modern apprenticeships for there to be payment where students get their qualifications," he said.

"One reason for doing it is that the Government has highlighted the drop-out rate of A-level students as a very expensive problem. Also, some of our students will go on to higher education immediately. We thought the money would be useful to assist them on their way."

Mr Bright said that he was reintroducing an A-level programme "in response to those who want to be able to study in a college environment rather than in school".

The college hired the services of a marketing company to pinpoint potential students, sending mailshots to their homes. Local heads have written to Mr Bright protesting. Three comprehensive schools, all with sixth forms, lie within a mile of the college. None admitted to losing any potential A-level students to the college. Stephen Gee, head of Clarendon, said: "Careers officers tell me that our students would prefer to stay within the school they know. Last year we had an 86.5 per cent pass rate (in grades) A-E."

Sheelagh Brown, chairperson of Wiltshire Association of Secondary Heads, said: "Sixth-form budgets were cut last year in order to give money to primary schools. We are desperate for funds. The Trowbridge College scheme seems to indicate that their funding is more generous.

"I think their scheme is diabolical and wrong for students. Money should not be part of the decision they have to make - they have enough difficulties making the right decisions on courses. In the end I think it will backfire. "

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