Schools and colleges have warned that they could be prevented from competing effectively with the independent sector for places at top universities under new funding rules that are expected to block extra money for students taking more than three A levels.
The favoured option for a simplified 16-19 funding system, expected to be unveiled by the end of the month, is to offer just one funding rate intended to cover the cost of three A levels or a vocational programme such as a BTEC, according to sources briefed by officials.
With the proportion of state school and college students entering the Russell Group of universities already having fallen last year, heads and principals fear restrictions on the number of A levels that students can take could harm their ability to compete for places at elite institutions.
"These changes will seriously damage high-achieving tertiary and sixth-form colleges," said one college principal. "Having sucked up to the private sector at their recent Brighton College conference, (education secretary Michael) Gove now takes away the capacity of the top colleges and maintained schools to compete with the private sector in terms of offering a broad and challenging educational experience."
Others said that the changes, which would be implemented in September 2013, may be intended to complement A-level reforms designed to make the qualifications harder. That would mean more teaching time would need to be focused on each individual course. But the full effect on 16-19 provision is not likely to be known until the exact value of the funding rate is set next spring.
According to the consultation published in October, however, a single funding rate would address some of the complaints made in the review of vocational education by Professor Alison Wolf (pictured, left). The review criticised the allocation of funding according to the details of students' separate qualifications, rather than having a standard funding allocation per student, paying for a balanced and coherent programme.
Professor Wolf said the current system gave schools and colleges an incentive to seek out qualifications that paid well but did not require much teaching time. "This is the only country, to the best of my knowledge, where institutions routinely spend money attending workshops that explain the latest wrinkles in the funding formula and how best to exploit these," she said.
Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the new funding rules would come on top of cuts that 16-19 institutions had already sustained last year, when funding for extracurricular activities and pastoral care was cut by 75 per cent. "We've already suffered very heavily in recent reviews, in particular with the loss of enrichment or entitlement funding, which reduces the experience people in public 16-19 education are getting," he said.
"All colleges and schools have at least some students who are doing a larger than normal programme of A levels. If that's not funded it will work against social mobility."
As TES went to press, the proposals were believed to be under consideration by ministers, for publication by the end of the month. A Department for Education spokeswoman said: "We have consulted on reforming the way we fund education for 16- to 19-year-olds and are due to make an announcement shortly."
See FE Focus, pages 54-55.