FE's "fragmented" funding and curriculum have reinforced the perception that vocational education is a "second rate" alternative to academic study, the sector's funding body has warned.
In a damning submission to the Wolf review of 14-19 vocational education, the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) describes a "wasteful, bureaucratic and inefficient" system wracked by confusion because of "excessive" Government meddling.
It says the quality of teaching and learning is "variable" and FE colleges are hampered by a curriculum that has been "bolted on" to conventional school programmes. The SFA also blasts the "incoherent, complex organisational and funding arrangements" and the "lack of clear pre- and post-16 progression".
Professor Alison Wolf, an expert in the relationship between education and the labour market based at King's College London, is looking at the organisation of 14-19 vocational education for a Government-commissioned review. The review will examine whether vocational courses are responding to employment patterns and helping young people to progress into work or further and higher education.
According to the SFA, vocational education, especially for 14 to 16-year- olds, has already "suffered from excessive review and a series of ad-hoc short-term initiatives", which means there is no clear curriculum.
It adds: "The consequences of this have been to undermine the value of vocational provision and to reinforce the perceptions of students, parents and school and college communities that vocational education is a second rate alternative to academic options.
"Of particular concern is that this complexity and poor image have left employers confused about its purpose and reluctant to engage."
Responding to the submission, Deborah Ribchester, the Association of Colleges' 14-19 senior policy manager, said having a large number of different qualifications "provides choice for young people".
"We believe there should be a progression into apprenticeships and a progression out of apprenticeships into work or higher education, so it doesn't close any doors to students," she added.
Ms Ribchester acknowledged the funding system was "very complicated" but said colleges would not recognise the SFA's criticism of their partnerships with schools.
"There is a lot of evidence to show colleges and schools working successfully together, pre- and post-16," she said.
Lynne Sedgmore, executive director of the 157 Group of leading colleges, welcomed the SFA's "professional, clear and strong" response, which recognised "what colleges are doing already", as well as the need to "place apprenticeships at the centre of vocational provision".