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A -level funds gap nudges 30 per cent;Further education

Despite massive cash injections, colleges are still falling behind school sixth forms in the dash for cash, reports

Harvey McGavin.

THE A-LEVEL funding gap is growing with colleges set to receive nearly 30 per cent less than schools next year, despite Labour's pledges to bring the two sectors together under a fairer system of financing.

New figures from the Association of Colleges reveal that, although massive cash injections were announced for the sector last week, colleges are falling even further behind schools in the money they receive for A-level students.

The AOC estimates that from next year colleges will be able to spend less than three-quarters of the amount available to schools for teaching three A levels.

Following the revenue support grant announcement for local authorities last week, schools will have an average of pound;3,490 per pupil in 2000-2001, compared with pound;2,492 for general further education colleges and pound;2,486 for sixth-form colleges. This means both FE and sixth-form colleges will get only around 72 per cent of what schools receive, down from around 80 per cent in 1996-97.

Education Secretary David Blunkett has said that he wants to move towards equivalent funding for equivalent courses, by a process of "levelling up". But the Government stopped short of introducing a common funding system in the Learning to Succeed White Paper on post-16 provision, in case it left small sixth forms in schools vulnerable to closure.

An announcement on the future funding of school sixth forms, following consultation on proposals in the White Paper, is due shortly.

But the AOC is warning that the persistent disparity in funding threatens to undermine Curriculum 2000, the expanded A-level programme due to be introduced in September next year.

John Brennan, the AOC's director of development, who compiled the figures from DFEE and Further Education Funding Council statistics, said that neither schools nor colleges can currently afford to deliver the standard five AS-levelthree A-level package envisaged by Curriculum 2000.

He said the cost in a small school sixth form of less than 50 pupils would be in the region of pound;4,000 per head - pound;500 more than their funding would allow - while FE and sixth-form colleges with a cohort size of 200 would need another pound;600 more per pupil. But, he said, given equal funding, colleges could deliver.

"If you could bring colleges up to the same (funding) basis as schools they would be able to offer a very handsome and full package simply because of the economies of scale you get in larger institutions.

"Colleges are going to have to think long and hard about what they can actually deliver."

If they attempt to offer the new extended curriculum, large colleges could run up against problems with accommodation and timetabling, he said.

Dr Brennan said that although the Government had made "sympathetic noises" about equalising funding what was now needed was "explicit policy". Most of the new money announced for the sector was for growth in student numbers or specific initiatives like the Standards Fund, he said.

"In themselves these are valuable but you need to address the basic problem. Until you do something about the funding gap you won't be able to deliver the totality of Curriculum 2000. We want to see some action directly specifically at trying to close that gap."

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