Concerns about those young people who leave school with few or no qualifications and then drop out of education or training altogether are at the forefront of post-16 government policies. To address this, there is an array of measures and incentives designed to support these youngsters and help them achieve. Education maintenance allowances help tackle financial barriers; the Increased Flexibility programme addresses curriculum issues by offering a wider choice of vocational options; and the Aim Higher programme motivates teenagers to try for higher education.
Yet perhaps the biggest issue waiting to be addressed is the simple fact that we systematically spend more money per head on the more successful and highly-qualified students than we do on the less qualified. The current approach to funding ensures that the underachievers get fewer resources - something that is rarely acknowledged. At least four factors contribute to this state of affairs and reinforce each other.
First, those attending colleges are generally less well qualified than those in school sixth forms, even when they are studying the same types of course. College students are also more likely to be from less affluent backgrounds and from ethnic-minority groups. Yet Learning and Skills Development Agency research, published in July, confirms that schools get at least 14 per cent more funding than colleges for students in identical circumstances.
Second, colleges, schools and work-based learning providers all lose money if their learners do not succeed; but some are hit harder than others.
Those who are least qualified when recruited, unsurprisingly, have lower success rates, so those who work with them lose most money. Moreover, the percentage clawed back from an apprentice provider is two and a half times the percentage for A-levels, even though it is known that an apprenticeship is much harder to achieve, I believe.
Third, those on more advanced courses get more teaching per week than those on lower-level programmes. An LSDA analysis of records in further education shows that, on average, most teaching time is given to students in sixth-form colleges studying A-levels or the equivalent; the least teaching is received by those in general FE colleges on courses at level 1 (GCSE grade D-G equivalent). This is a result of an underdeveloped curriculum and needs to be addressed.
Finally, this inequality in resourcing is rigidly underpinned by the current practice of linking funding to qualifications, which is often misleadingly referred to as "funding following the learner". The funding of school sixth forms and colleges is based on how many subjects are being taken by each pupil. So the effect is that the high-flyer taking five A-levels attracts more than twice the funding of the less-able candidate struggling to achieve two.
The bold steps proposed by the Learning and Skills Council in its Agenda for Change offer a chance to tackle this perverse system. Its proposals envisage that a standard level of funding should be available for full-time young learners as long as the size of their programme passes a minimum threshold. An adjustment could be made to reflect the extra cost of some technical subjects, but there would be no financial incentive to inflate a student's programme, and no penalty for recognising that some learners need more modest goals than others. This move could be a major step towards levelling a most unequal playing field.
A more equal share of resources for the less successful can only come about, however, if schools and colleges seize the opportunity to change the way they manage the curriculum. If most of their resources are locked up in a traditional subject-based timetable in standard blocks, it will still be the case that those students able to tackle big programmes will get disproportionate attention. Finding ways to free up resources so that each student can be supported to achieve their potential could give real meaning to the drive to personalise learning.
Mick Fletcher is research manager at the Learning and Skills Development Agency