Sixth-form colleges may be forced to drastically cut the number of A-levels and other qualifications they offer as a result of funding pressures and moves to encourage students to take core subjects.
College leaders have warned that the number of A-levels on offer could fall from 40 to as few as 15, significantly narrowing the choice available to students. Modern foreign languages will be "dead in the water", with further maths and creative subjects such as music and drama also vulnerable.
The warning comes as sixth-form colleges prepare for the end of transitional funding, a temporary measure introduced to shield them from the worst effects of a major funding overhaul. This runs out next year, and some colleges will have their funding reduced by about 20 per cent to around pound;4,000 per student, according to David Igoe, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges' Association.
"They're facing a fiscal cliff in 2015-16," he said. "That is driving decisions about the kind of curriculum offer they can make."
Colleges would need to ensure they had sufficient numbers to run a subject, he added. "Sixth-form colleges typically offer around 40 subjects, which is great for students because they have a lot of choice, but in future the A-level offer won't be much more than 15 subjects."
In addition, the government's promotion of the English Baccalaureate (EBac) range of core GCSE subjects and the emphasis on taking "facilitating subjects" for university entry are narrowing students' options.
"It is inevitable that students who have come through that diet [the EBac] in school will choose those A-levels as well," Mr Igoe said. However, despite being included in the EBac, language qualifications were vulnerable, he warned. "Modern languages will be dead in the water and it will be difficult to run further maths as an A-level," he added.
A-level maths entries have risen by more than two-thirds in the past decade, while the number of students taking French and German has fallen by about 50 per cent over the same period.
The Russell Group of universities recommends that students take at least two of the options on its list of facilitating subjects to ensure access to the widest range of degrees. The subjects on the list are maths and further maths, English literature, physics, chemistry, biology, history, geography and classical and modern languages.
Mark Bramwell, associate director for sixth-form colleges at the Association of Colleges, said some colleges were cutting back on the range of A-level choices even before the end of transitional funding.
The AoC is carrying out research into further education and tertiary college A-level provision; it estimates that 40 colleges have dropped A-level courses in the past four years.
"Already, before the funding protection disappears, colleges are having to reduce their breadth of subjects," Mr Bramwell said. "A number of sixth-form colleges have already taken subjects out for this year and others are planning to reduce their offer for next year."
He said colleges that used to offer three modern foreign languages were cutting back to two or even one, while music was also at risk.
Colleges had previously been able to maintain small group sizes in some subjects by also running more popular courses, but funding was now so tight that this might no longer be possible, Mr Bramwell added. "There has been cross-subsidy for a number of years, but that opportunity has gone now and subjects have to stand on their own two feet," he explained.
He said he was aware of one college that now offered students four separate pathways of three A-levels each, effectively reducing its A-level range to just 12 subjects.
"It is a shame because the strength of our sixth-form colleges has always been the breadth of the offer. A student could have a choice of 40 or 50 subjects at advanced level and a programme designed around them and their career aspirations and their interests," Mr Bramwell said.
The majority still wanted to have as many subjects as possible but were reducing their range each year, he added.
The Department for Education said it had ended the "historic and unfair" funding difference between post-16 schools and colleges by providing funding per student, rather than discriminating between qualifications.
A DfE spokesman said: "The funding is sufficient for each full-time student to undertake a full timetable of courses to suit their needs, be it A-levels or other post-16 qualifications.
"It is for individual institutions to decide on what they provide to best suit the needs of their students."
`It will affect less sellable subjects'
Ian Hooper, vice-principal of Woodhouse College in North London, says there is likely to be a "narrowing" of the range of subjects on offer over the next few years.
Woodhouse does not benefit from transitional relief, so will not lose funding, but nevertheless the combination of the EBac and the focus on facilitating subjects could funnel students away from subjects that are seen as less important for getting into university.
"It makes students more concerned that what they do will have `currency' and will be a route into what they perceive to be the best universities," Mr Hooper says.
The college aims to keep the broad curriculum that distinguishes it from nearby schools but cannot rule out dropping some A-levels.
"Over the next three or four years it might mean that we have to look at some subjects," Mr Hooper says. "If you are choosing three two-year courses, which is what it seems the government wants as the direction of travel, that will probably have an impact on what are seen as the less sellable subjects."