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Schools back formula for college funding

Earlier this year, school sixth forms were asked whether they wanted to be funded in the same way that colleges have been since they left local authority control in 1993.

Given the way the money formulas of the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC) are regarded by most colleges, secondary heads might have offered a resounding No. But given a choice between a quasi-FE approach and a national version of the "fair funding" system that governs local management of schools, they plumped for the former - provided it could be shown to work and not overburden them with bureaucracy.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, says:

"We support moves to a single funding system between schools and colleges to bring greater coherence into the post-16 system."

But nobody is sure what it will look like. Colleges will be funded by the Learning and Skills Council using the FEFC's methodology. Sixth forms will be funded by LEAs for another 12 months.

Colleges will soon know what sort of formula the national skills council is planning for them in 20023 - the year in which the new sixth-form funding system is due.

The Government has promised that schools retaining their sixth form numbers will not lose out; the new post-16 sector could even end up with separate national formulas for colleges and sixth forms.

Martin Roberts, head of The Cherwell School, Oxford, appreciates the need to fund students on the basis of which courses they study and their levels of achievement in a way that local management of schools is unable to do. But he hopes it will not become the nightmare described by some colleg principals who have struggled with their returns to the FEFC. "If the Government is serious about improving the post-16 system, it can't dump something like that on to us," he says.

A consultation document published last year pledged that the Learning and Skills Council would eschew terms such as "funding unit" and "tariff", but can it devise a system that reflects the complex nature of post-16 learning without being overtly bureaucratic?

David Percival, principal of Plymouth College, would prefer a funding system that is less "information rich" and is simply weighted towards student numbers and says it is important that schools and colleges should be subject to the same requirements.

"It ought to be that sixth forms come under the same formula (as colleges) and there is one set of auditing rules," he says. "With the number of students there are in sixth forms, they could do the whole thing manually."

Other principals also hope the new funding regime is simpler than the FEFC's but are less sure that Westminster's thirst for management information will ease.

Earlier this year, the FEFC consulted colleges over the future of the individualised student record on behalf of its successor, and the results are due to be announced shortly by the new council.

John Rockett, president of the Association for College Management, believes that the management information industry will continue to flourish as IT systems improve and local skills councils gain access to data through ISDN (fast broadband) lines.

"They are likely to be sucking data out of colleges rather than us pushing it at them," says Rockett.

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