Manchester 2009 will be remembered as the conference where the Tories converted to 14-19 as a distinct phase of education and training. It has come almost four years after David Cameron became leader, but it is welcome. The Conservatives are no longer the party believing vocational education and training must wait until 16.
At Manchester, the party accepted, largely through the prompting of Lord Baker, the former education secretary, that by 14 many young people know whether they wish to follow an academic or a vocational pathway, although always having to study English, maths and science.
They have accepted that for many youngsters, especially boys, interest in vocational subjects is what necessitates - and in some cases forces - study of the basics, instead of having to master these before progressing to the vocational.
And they have accepted that some young people, many from poor backgrounds, need an extra two or three years to achieve a Level 2 qualification, and that success at 19 is better than failure at 16.
They reinforced their credentials by supporting 14-19 apprenticeships, based on Young Apprenticeships for 14- to 15-year-olds that lead to ones for 16- to 19-year olds. They made a commitment to build 12 new 14-19 technical schools in urban areas with a plan to have similar schools across the country. And they have converted to the idea of 14- and 15- year-olds studying full-time at FE colleges, building on the 5 to 10 per cent who study part-time while on schools rolls.
All this should be applauded. But it leaves the thorny issue of funding councils. Rather than a single 14-19 body, the Conservatives seem to propose three.
Alongside the Learning and Skills Council's (LSC) abolition, they have proposed the transfer of 16-19 FE and 16-19 apprenticeships funding to a new post-16 Further Education Funding Council England. In their Get Britain Working campaign, they hinted at its creation forming part of an early Education Bill on gaining power. It could be a post-14 funding body for all full-time and part-time 14-19 college students and apprentices.
Yet the primary purpose of the Tories' Education Bill is to remove large swathes of the secondary-school sector from council funding. Existing academies, failing secondary schools, new "free" schools and bespoke 14-19 technical schools would be funded from the centre, through either an enlarged Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) or, presumably, a new 3-19 national schools funding council.
Councils would fund all other schools, operating as 3-19 funding agencies. The LSC's demise means 16-18 school sixth-form funding would be split between schools funded centrally - by the DCSF or a UK schools funding council - and local authorities.
The threats to FE are obvious. Centrally and locally funded secondary schools could well receive more preferential funding rates than FE colleges for 14-19 provision.
Principals at the Association of Colleges conference in Birmingham next month will be asking whether a single 14-19 funding agency is more likely to effect comparable funding for comparable provision.
Arguing that FE colleges can deliver outcomes more cheaply than school sixth forms, even given the fiscal crisis, will cut little ice when the challenge is to create a new system of "free" schools offering 16-19 and 14-19 provision.
- Mark Corney, Director, MC Consultancy.