Many well-qualified students have been denied sixth-form places to study for A-levels because of the previous government's cutbacks, an exclusive survey reveals today.
And thousands more bright teenagers have been turned away from college-based vocational courses.
The survey, carried out by the Association of Colleges in conjunction with The TES, provides the first clear evidence of the effects on students of Pounds 75 million cuts imposed on sixth-form and FE colleges last year.
The 157 colleges surveyed turned away 4,045 teenagers last month - suggesting that up to 10,000 16 to 19-year-olds may have been denied places nationally, if the trend is repeated across the country.
Nearly half of the colleges responding said they had terminated courses - including mainstream A-levels - to make ends meet. Axed subjects include further maths, economics, chemistry, Spanish, Italian and Latin. A wide range of applied A-level standard courses like general national vocational qualifications have also been cut.
AOC policy director John Brennan said the survey was early evidence that predicted cuts in places of up to 125,000 could materialise. He warned that Prime Minister Tony Blair's mission to hit national education targets and bring an army of people back into college could be undermined if more cash was not found. He said: "There must be cause for concern. The evidence shows that the cut in funding is having an adverse effect. The drive to raise participation and meet targets is going to be undermined if these findings are borne out by the figures for the full year."
The problems are likely to cause headaches for ministers in the light of Mr Blair's pledge to increase student numbers in further and higher education by 500,000 by 2002. Principals pointed to rising class sizes, increasing selection and loss of subjects in colleges, many in middle England, known to produce some of the nation's best results.
They were scathing about the Government's refusal to bail colleges out of this year's financial crisis, created when Tory Ministers reduced the cash available for college growth earlier this year.
Colin Greenhalgh, principal of Hills Road College in Cambridge, one of Britain's leading sixth-form colleges, said the situation was "diabolical". "We are always oversubscribed because of our reputation, but the funding situation is very worrying. We had to axe an adult access course which is particularly sad," he said Principals warned that class sizes were rising and said the situation would be worse next year if cash was not found.
It was unclear whether the displaced students had found places elsewhere. School sixth forms reported increasing numbers, although no last minute rush, and principals said local arrangements between schools and colleges would help people find places.
Colleges also reported wide regional variations in recruitment trends.
John Dunford, past president of the Secondary Heads Association, said his lower sixth was 25 per cent larger than last year, although students had come to his school as their first choice.
"Up until now we haven't turned people away, but we might have to think about setting some sort of limit for future years," he said.
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