The vocational price is not right
Colleges reach breaking point on subsidising courses designed to build bridges with schools
Relationships with schools are being put under strain as colleges pay heavily for under-16s.
Colleges are contributing up to three times more than schools to teach pupils, according to new research published by the Learning and Skills Network.
Vocational courses for Year 10 and 11s are too reliant on short-term funding and on subsidies from colleges to be sustainable, the network warns. Research in 2005 estimated colleges subsidise schools by pound;100 million per year.
Partnerships between schools and colleges are critical to the new vocational diplomas, which begin in 2008. But the numbers taking vocational options outside school are expected to fall this year, says the study.
"This initial unravelling could quickly gain momentum if funding issues are not addressed," the network warns.
The research by Brian Styles, Mick Fletcher and Rob Valentine makes stark reading for ministers, who want to see 250,000 under-16s in colleges by 2013.
"FE has heavily subsidised this," said Mick Fletcher. "It's simply not sustainable to carry on like this." New diplomas and more collaborative work ahead made finding a solution more urgent, he said.
The increased flexibility programme offering 14 to 16-year-olds up to two days per week in college, has been shown to boost school exam results and persuade more pupils to stay on in education.
The Learning and Skills Council gave partnerships of schools and colleges up to pound;100,000 to cover costs. Colleges met the teaching costs and were urged to charge their partner schools.
Although colleges do not have to offer such courses, most see it as part of their social duty, it improves relationships with schools and it encourages students to stay on in education after 16.
The LSN study looked at the financial impact of providing vocational options in four well-established partnerships involving 50 schools and five FE colleges. It found that the programmes were more expensive than GCSEs in schools, and were too reliant on European Social Fund grants and college subsidies.
A typical vocational course costs pound;2,300 per pupil. On average, only pound;400 to pound;500 comes from the school, and the same amount from Europe, leaving the college to find between pound;1,300 and pound;1,500.
Schools are increasingly resisting college attempts to get them to pay more of the cost, the study says. They often make little saving in sending pupils to college and are not prepared to save money on their core activities to pay for it. Some already offer vocational options in the classroom instead.
And colleges are beginning to limit the numbers of pupils they take on as they meet the growing demand for post-16 places.
Julian Gravatt, of the Association of Colleges, welcomed the research. "It pins down the fact that this kind of work is more expensive than standard classroom stuff," he said. "It has been kept afloat by a combination of short-term funding and goodwill."
Beverley Burgess, director of the LSC's young people's partnership and infrastructure, said: "The increased flexibility programme and young apprenticeships represent significant milestones in the development of good-quality, flexible provision for young people. In 2007-08, the LSC is allocating a budget of pound;200 million to enable further development."
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