Research which shows small colleges struggle to teach A-levels cost-effectively has dealt a serious blow to Government hopes of a voucher scheme for all 16 to 19-year-olds in education and training.
A report by Birmingham University's school of education shows that ministers are as far away as ever from creating a "level playing field" in funding to pave the way for learning credits in the 16-19 sector.
It shows the cost of a student taking an A-level course is as much as four times more at smaller colleges. The report contradicts figures produced by the Department for Education and Employment which claimed funding per student was similar in schools and colleges, while sixth-form colleges topped the cost league.
A DFEE spokesman called the report, Cost and Performance of A-Level Provision in the Further Education Sector, an "interesting contribution" to the debate .
Ministers had hoped the DFEE figures would revive the flagging fortunes of post-16 vouchers which were heralded as the way forward in the 1994 Competitiveness White Paper. Ministers pledged then to deal "as a matter of urgency" with disparities in funding.
Labour training spokesman Stephen Byers said: "If vouchers are introduced there will be massive problems for school sixth forms where the unit costs are much higher and the only way they could exist would be by taking money away from the lower year groups to support sixth-form provision."
The Birmingham University report shows that the cost per exam entry varied widely according to the size of a college's A-level provision. The research team studied nine colleges and found the most cost effective were two sixth-form colleges and a tertiary college.
Professor Hywel Thomas, one of the report's authors, said while the findings could not be generalised they showed big differences in costs and pointed to an urgent need for more research.