Jon Slater reports
Students at sixth-form colleges are doing better at A-level than students in schools for the first time, official figures show.
The achievement comes despite the fact that the Government and colleges estimate they receive between 10 and 20 per cent less funding per student than schools.
Just six months ago ministers announced an expansion of school sixth-forms.
In 2003-4, sixth-form college students gained an average of two Bs at A-level and two Cs at AS. This compares to two Bs at A-level and a C and a D at AS for young people in school sixth-forms.
But schools held on to their lead among the top-performing pupils.
The proportion of school students gaining at least three grade As at A-level was 7.7 per cent, compared to 7.1 per cent in sixth-form colleges.
John Dunford, Secondary Heads Association general secretary, said: "I do not think comparisons like this are very helpful. For one thing, they do not take into account prior attainment. There are strong and weak colleges and strong and weak schools."
Colleges said it was a reward for their efforts to raise standards despite "unfair" funding.
David Igoe, principal of Cadbury sixth-form college in Birmingham, said:
"We have not compromised on employing high-quality staff despite the fact that our funding is about 15 per cent less than schools."
But he said that unless funding improves, colleges may not be able to stay ahead of schools.
"We are very concerned about our ability to recruit high-quality staff because we are not confident that we can sustain pay at school levels."
The Association of Colleges has warned that guaranteed per pupil funding increases for schools over the next few years will mean college budgets are squeezed further.
The TES revealed in November that sixth-form colleges had halved the performance gap with schools in the two years to 2002-3.
In its five-year plan, the Government promised to fast-track applications from successful schools to set up sixth-forms in areas where there are few schools offering post-16 education.
Critics claim the move will squeeze colleges because schools can spread administrative costs across the school and can persuade pupils to stay on post-16.
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