John Redwood's proposal to extend to sixth-form funding in Wales some of the funding disciplines of the further education colleges with which they compete (page 1) is an important departure, which could mark a step towards a more level playing field for those providing education and training for 16 to 19-year-olds.
The Welsh Secretary's move may not be a sign that a genuinely free market in post-16 education is about to break out, though a more equitable basis for funding is an essential precursor. But it is an acceptance that things cannot remain as they are, as Labour's David Blunkett also acknowledges.
The Government's Competitiveness White Paper envisages that eventually there will be a 16-19 skills market driven by students spending "learning credits" with real cash values. School sixth forms would find that a serious challenge. With their higher unit costs, they already find it difficult to compete with the choice of subjects and range of courses the colleges' larger scale allows. The old HMI rule of thumb that 150 students was the minimum viable sixth form now has to be revised in the light of the new vocational courses. Sir Christopher Ball suggested in The TES last year that 400 was now the minimum critical mass, educationally and financially.
Too many smaller sixth forms survive on squatters' rights. Prior possession of students can be nine-tenths of the law when it comes to post-16 recruitment. Management consultants Touche Ross last year estimated that at least Pounds 50 million a year is wasted by schools signing up unsuitable candidates for A-level courses from which they later drop out, with nothing to show for their time. Sir Ron Dearing is looking at the A-level drop-out rate as a priority in his l6-19 review. John Redwood is right to build a disincentive into funding arrangements to discourage inappropriate recruitment.
College interests have been swift to complain to the National Audit Office about the higher costs of teaching a limited range of A-levels in schools. One estimate last year put it at Pounds 500 million. Hywel Thomas, recently appointed professor of economics of education at Birmingham University, pointed in his inaugural lecture earlier this year to the fact that A-levels in schools can cost more than twice as much as in colleges in cash, and cost the student the equivalent of a grade for each A-level in effectiveness.
So far, however, sixth-form funding which takes account of student performance and completion rates looks like remaining an exclusively Welsh phenomenon. It owes much, no doubt, to John Redwood's own predilection for free enterprise solutions, and his party's indifference to the use of the Welsh as guinea-pigs in this way.
The Competitiveness White Paper promised careful consultation before pilot schemes for learning credits were even considered, a signal perhaps that even in Government circles the practical doubts hanging over other voucher proposals also apply to 16 to 19. Would laissez-faire guarantee the right kind of education and training in the right places any better than a planned system? And would it prove more expensive if the value of the voucher had to reflect the higher costs of certain areas or the maintenance of"diversity"?
So far there is no sign that the Secretary of State for English schools is tempted to emulate her Welsh counterpart. Her predecessor went the other way by encouraging schools to establish more small sixth forms, duplicating places at the same time as demanding colleges met new expansion targets.
Since Kenneth Clarke let off the brake that was supposed to prevent opted out schools applying for change of character, the focus has tended to fall on those seeking to select their initial intakes. In fact the greatest number of applications has been for permission to start a sixth form, another way of raising what Professor Thomas calls "a flag in the market".
Given the social make-up of small sixth forms, once again diversity results not just in an alternative for the chosen, but in more for a privileged minority at the expense of the majority. Funding levels favour school years 12 and 13 over their college peers and younger pupils, and they are subsidised internally out of money intended for all-abilities lower down the school.
If John Redwood's proposals are successful they may strike a blow for equity as well as efficiency.