General further education colleges offer fewer activities and less support to students than others in the sector, a research report from the University of Birmingham says.
The report on A-level cost and performance by Professor Hywell Thomas and Clive Belfield from the school of education, says students judge general FE colleges as "significantly inferior" to tertiary and sixth-form colleges for extra-curricular activities offered.
The report gives a fillip to sixth-form colleges in particular. They come out top of the three types of college for A-level provision on a range of value-added factors.
It will provide them with ammunition in their fight with the FEFC to maintain spending levels. At the Sixth Form Colleges Association annual meeting, after the autumn public expenditure settlement, they warned education and employment minister James Paice that repeated efficiency demands would destroy their ethos.
He acknowledged their "unique selling point" in the extra curricular activities. But, they warned, these went when forced to cram in more students at lower costs.
Professor Thomas said: "The differences do not unambiguously indicate a general superiority of one college type."
All FE colleges can take heart from an independent schools inspection survey this week by the Office for Standards in Education. It challenges the viability of small sixth forms and accuses school heads of failing to check expenditure and value for money.
But a strong note of warning for general FE colleges is sounded in the Birmingham study of nine scientifically sampled colleges (three of each type). They come bottom of the tables for cost-effectiveness and students' own assessments of the benefits on offer.
"There appear to be differences between the college types in the encouragement given to students, the student attitudes, the resources available for tuition and the perceived standard of that tuition."
A survey of student attitudes was carried out alongside the college study. Sixth-form and tertairy colleges beat FE colleges for the time devoted to 12 extra-curricular activities, including charity and environmental work, sports, acting, cultural visits, outdoor activities and community work.