One of the flagship education policies of the Government is to focus resources on the disadvantaged through the pupil premium. One can dispute whether the premium involves new money as claimed and argue about how it could be better distributed, but it is clear that it is a powerful symbol of the Government's wish to reduce the achievement gap between rich and poor. Moreover, it clearly identifies the extra sum of money available to schools for each disadvantaged pupil.
The 16-19 funding consultation recently issued by the Department for Education seeks to extend the principle behind the pupil premium to the 16-19 phase. This is welcome. Implementation is complicated because there are already arrangements in the FE system that reflect both social and economic disadvantage and learning difficulties. The FE system is arguably more sophisticated, identifying degrees of disadvantage rather than simply classifying everyone as either disadvantaged or not according to whether they receive free school meals. However, the central policy intent - to deliver extra resources to support disadvantaged pupils throughout compulsory education and to make those resources clearly visible - must be supported.
It is surprising, therefore, that an option in another part of the consultation threatens to undermine the premium. Proposals to give extra funding for larger programmes seem to be reasonable - but the impact would be to produce an extra subsidy for the most able. They would provide more public funding to selective sixth-forms and sixth-form colleges at the expense of more inclusive schools and general FE, and would boost the funding of those on level 3 programmes at the expense of low achievers on programmes at level 2 and below.
Another shock is the question: "How we can prevent an upward drift in the size of study programmes?" Or, in plain English: "How can we stop schools and colleges offering as much support to struggling students as they give to high flyers?" The suggested answer is that only institutions full of high flyers should offer the more expensive programmes.
The consultation claims that its proposals merely reflect the status quo - but they are no less shameful for that. It is a perversity of a system based on qualifications that students able to tackle five A-levels or the International Baccalaureate (IB) attract more public funding than those whose situation means that they can only undertake a smaller challenge.
The point of the Wolf report was to change the status quo, not to preserve it. The funding consultation flows directly from its central recommendation: that we should fund learning programmes instead of qualifications. Institutions should be free to design programmes that meet the needs of their pupils by making use of both qualifications and non-qualification activities, and should focus on achievement in English and maths for those who have not yet reached GCSE at grade C.
A separate consultation on study programmes for 16 to 19-year-olds adds little to the Wolf report proposals. It is perhaps this lack of new thinking that leads the funding paper to focus on maintaining the status quo. Yet the challenge is not to replicate current inequities, but to redesign our offer so that it reflects young people's individual needs. It is a historic opportunity to remove a funding anomaly that could vitiate the pupil premium.
Mick Fletcher is an education consultant and visiting research fellow at London University's Institute of Education.