Editorial: Equality at a price

6th November 1998 at 00:00
David Blunkett made significant moves this week towards restoring the links between schools and colleges. These were all but destroyed by the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, which triggered fierce competition. Much has already been said by ministers about how colleges will work with LEAs in the new era of co-operation, but, say college leaders, detail has been lacking. The plans unveiled this week are consistent with the sector's hopes for widening participation; but they still leave unanswered many thorny questions about implementation.

Mr Blunkett raised some eyebrows by deciding to announce the package to business leaders at the Confederation of British Industry's annual conference rather than to a gathering of school or college principals. But he was right to signal clearly to the employers in his audience the crucial role they must play in tackling the serious problems of disaffected youngsters who played truant or were permanently excluded from school. And he is likely to use the opportunity presented by the annual gathering of the Association of Colleges later this month to add the detail required by educators.

His package of measures launched at the CBI conference, aimed at improving attainment and raising qualifications, includes an expanded New Start programme for school drop-outs, new National Traineeships and more college places, a pilot Pounds 40-a-week maintenance allowance to encourage drop-outs back to college and an improved careers service.

But that is only half the story. Colleges may have won an extra Pounds 255 million in the Government's comprehensive spending review, but only Pounds 100m has been allocated to the initiatives announced this week (page 31). How will the rest be spent? The unfair funding of colleges compared with school sixth-forms still needs to be addressed. Student support is crucial if participation rates are to be raised - but are maintenance allowances the way to do it? Expansion of student numbers will not solve any problems if students begin their courses only to drop out because of financial hardship. When Mr Blunkett speaks to the AOC in Harrogate, college leaders will be expecting answers to such questions.

There is an even more basic issue: Who decides who gets what in this brave new coherent system? Among the many players - schools, colleges, training and enterprise councils - there are constant arguments about unfairness. Will the Government be the bringer of fiscal harmony?

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