Opportunities for under-16s to gain real vocational experience in college are under threat from cuts, colleges have warned.
In its submission to the Wolf review of vocational education, the Association of Colleges (AoC) said members were already seeing fewer 14- to 16-year-olds going to colleges, after the funding to support the increased flexibility programme was reduced.
The AoC said in its evidence: "Colleges have no direct access to funding for 14- to 16-year-olds. A large number of programmes of part-time 14-16 provision were set up by colleges under the increased flexibility programme in the last decade, but their future is uncertain.
"Funding to schools to support this provision has been reduced, and despite the acknowledged success of these programmes, colleges report significant reductions in the numbers of young people being sent by schools."
The number of under-16s in college has fallen from over 100,000 in 2005 to 73,000 this year, mostly studying below GCSE level. Colleges believe this option is vital since just over half of 16-year-olds leave school without five good GCSEs including English and maths.
They call for a package of measures to ensure a wide range of vocational options are open to 14-to-16 year olds: a right to attend college earlier; a role for colleges in the development of options such as university technical colleges and studio schools; and a national funding formula for secondary education similar to the system for 16-19.
The AoC said that the expansion of "sometimes poorly delivered lower-level vocational qualifications has, in the eyes of many, devalued vocational qualifications in general", and that colleges should play the major role in teaching vocational subjects in their area.
Accreditation of qualifications through sector skills councils had not worked, colleges said, with some industries such as childcare left without a full-time route for a vocational level 2 qualification as a result. It said the central role should be given to colleges and training providers, working with awarding bodies, with employers' influence limited to setting occupational standards.
The Institute for Learning (IfL), which surveyed 5,000 of its members, renewed its call for parity between its QTLS (qualified teacher learning and skills) status and QTS (qualified teacher status) in schools, so that students pursuing vocational subjects can be taught by the best-qualified people, regardless of where they study.
One teacher trainer told the IfL: "If someone can teach a subject, whether it is in an FE setting or secondary school, then surely they deserve equal status? Many of our FE trainee teachers are teaching students from schools who have opted for vocational subjects.
"In some cases these are 14- to 15-year-olds who have been excluded from school, and I see first-hand how a teacher with a wealth of vocational expertise is able to connect with young people who would otherwise miss out."
Others criticised the wastefulness of retraining to move between the sectors. A literacy teacher forced to seek a job in schools due to cutbacks said: "It is difficult to imagine that any government which strives for international competitiveness could be so short-sighted when it comes to the skills and value of FE teachers.
"In addition, the Training and Development Agency for Schools is subsidising my training, which can at best be described as a duplication of all my previous FE teacher training and CPD. As the Government tries to make efficiency savings, they are missing probably one of the most obvious and sensible moves."