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A-levels under pressure

Colleges are giving up competing with sixth forms to offer more vocational courses. Neil Merrick reports

A-levels are being squeezed out of further education colleges as vocational training takes centre stage. During the past few months, colleges in Cambridge, south London and Surrey have joined the growing number that no longer compete with sixth form colleges and school sixth forms.

The issue came to a head this summer at Cambridge Regional College when members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers held a one-day strike in protest at the college's decision to axe A-levels, requiring some students to move mid-course.

Fourteen lecturers subsequently took voluntary redundancy while 36 students (nearly half aged over 19) switched to Long Road Sixth Form College to continue their studies.

The disappearance of A-levels from Lewisham College was less controversial, partly because it was phased over two years and students could complete courses they had already started. Ruth Silver, its principal, says the decision was forced on the college by the opening of a sixth form centre in the London borough two years ago.

At the time, about 600 students were taking A-levels at Lewisham. By last year, numbers had dwindled to 100. The new centre was strongly opposed by the college.

"I believe that you bridge the academic-vocational divide by having youngsters in the same place," she said.

But Ms Silver welcomes the opportunity to focus on vocational learning rather than needing to accommodate A-level students who fail to gain places elsewhere. "As we looked at what our learners needed, A-levels made less and less sense," she said. "We aren't being constrained by an examination board programme."

Colleges that withdraw A-levels insist they work closely with neighbouring institutions so that teenagers do not miss out. Steve Caley, vice principal at Cambridge, says there was greater clarity at this year's school open evenings over who offered what. "

Martin Freedman, head of pay and conditions at the ATL, said that it was virtually impossible to find out exactly how many colleges offer A-levels.

While Sir Andrew Foster's review and this year's FE white paper both stressed the importance of vocational skills, the ATL wants ministers to give a clear indication whether A-levels should remain part of the college curriculum.

"It's all being done in an unplanned and unco-ordinated way," said Mr Freedman. "Unless we get parity of esteem between academic and vocational courses, we will have a two-tier system with sixth form colleges offering A-levels and FE colleges offering vocational qualifications."

The Learning and Skills Council does not record how many colleges run A-levels nationally, although local and regional LSCs monitor the situation. The picture should become a little clearer when the first online prospectuses, drawn up with local authorities and Connexions, appear next year.

Gareth Griffiths, the LSC's head of 14 to 19 provision, said the important thing is that courses are of high quality, attractive to learners and cost-effective. "It's about meeting demand in a local area," he said.

The Association of Colleges estimates that as many as one in eight FE colleges (excluding sixth form colleges) no longer offers A-levels. Maggie Scott, its director of curriculum and quality, says more colleges are looking at the wider picture.

"It was happening pre-Foster and coincides with the rise of credible alternatives to A-levels," she said. Alternatives include new national diplomas that will be available in five vocational areas from 2008 and should lead to greater co-operation between colleges and schools.

But the National Union of Students is concerned that learners are losing the opportunity to study A-levels in an adult environment.

Ellie Russell, NUS vice-president, said: "Students face enough pressure finding a course in the first place, including transport. If courses are replaced it must be properly communicated to students and the local community. We don't want to get into a post-code lottery."

Not all FE colleges are struggling to run A-levels. In some parts of the country, they remain the major provider, especially where there are few sixth form colleges or school sixth forms.

Ian Pryce, principal of Bedford College, said some students would be disenfranchised if it no longer offered a few A-levels. "Foster forced us to think about things," he said. "We offer an adult experience and, while our primary purpose is vocational skills training, we're here for the whole community."

John Morell, vice principal of City of Bath College, said he would be surprised if an on-going review of local secondary education led to it scrapping A-levels.

He said: "They're a flagship qualification that everybody understands. Once you get rid of A-levels, people think you don't offer education."

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