Proposals for the biggest shake-up of post-16 education that Wales has ever seen have been criticised by politicians and teachers' unions.
The Assembly government's ambitious "transformation" agenda aims to widen pupil choice while making more effective use of dwindling resources.
Last week, 28 sets of proposals from local authorities, FE colleges and training providers were revealed for the first time. While there was general agreement that the status quo could not continue, critics expressed serious concerns and said there were many questions to be answered.
John Griffiths, deputy minister for skills, launched the Transforming Education and Training Provision in Wales document last September. Dubbed the "terracotta document" (because of its colour), it challenged providers to "set aside traditional, narrow, institutional arrangements" and plan post-16 provision together.
Providers had to state their expected outcomes, but the government's long- term aim is to increase the quality and range of learning available and reduce the number of Neets (young people not in education, employment or training).
But while the government maintains its policy is not prescriptive, schools and colleges have very real fears about the implications.
Some politicians and teachers' unions believe sixth forms will be scrapped and replaced by a tertiary system. There were accusations of hidden agendas and secret motives.
But Mr Griffiths refuted such suggestions, saying: "If people look at the evidence, they cannot for one minute think there is a hidden agenda. This is clearly not a one-size-fits-all model."
Paul Davies, the Conservative shadow education minister, believes the proposals would be costly. He criticised the government for failing to give enough money to previous schemes, such as the play-led foundation phase.
Mark Isherwood, his Tory colleague, accused the government of "riding roughshod" over colleges.
Jenny Randerson, the Liberal Democrats' education spokesperson, warned that the upheaval could prove deeply unpopular. She wants meaningful consultation.
Nerys Evans, Plaid Cymru's education spokesperson, said the plans faced three challenges: provision in rural areas, funding and Welsh-medium provision.
Mr Griffiths admitted rural areas do present "challenges", but said video conferencing and other ICT solutions would be investigated.
Some teachers' unions have also expressed doubts. Gareth Jones, director of the Association of School and College Leaders Cymru, said: "The timescale is ambitious. Some proposals will be ready, but some are far more complicated. The question mark under the whole of this agenda is funding."
Where capital funding was needed, he said, the government would try to make resources available. Future budgets would be aligned to the transformation agenda, he promised.
However, Philip Dixon, director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers Cymru, said unanswered questions remain over how the proposals will be assessed by officials and how their success will be measured.
"We've had a lot of sound and fury but there has been nothing terribly surprising," he said. "It's certainly not the doomsday scenario for sixth forms predicted by some."
Last week, Mr Griffiths outlined various proposals to fellow Assembly members and said he was pleased that providers had "risen to the challenge" and developed "local solutions to local needs" (see box, below).
He praised the majority of local authorities for their commitment to "eradicat(ing) the isolated planning and delivery of post-16 provision", and said several proposals were already "well advanced", offering opportunities for government support.
Officials will now work with providers to develop their proposals to a "sufficient level of detail" so that they can be successfully implemented. Local authorities will consult on proposed school closures, and the government will consult on proposed college closures.
Once the proposals have been approved, Mr Griffiths said he expects 60 per cent of providers to implement the changes by September 2010 and the remaining 40 per cent by September 2011.
He concluded: "We all have the opportunity to transform post-16 education and the way it is delivered. We will work with providers to make sure this happens."
- 11 local authorities, including Cardiff, Swansea, Conwy and Gwynedd, plan to set up local consortia between groups of schools or schools and FE colleges. They will have joint governance and management and, in some cases, share facilities
- Several other authorities, including Torfaen and Merthyr Tydfil, plan to unite all post-16 education under one umbrella, including elements of higher education
- Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire are opting for wholesale secondary school reorganisation
- A number of FE colleges have suggested mergers. Several skills providers have proposed partnerships for specific skills.