Pressure to close the funding gap between school sixth forms and colleges increased this week as lobbyists decided their best hope may be to force amendments to the Teaching and Higher Education Bill.
At the request of education ministers, the Further Education Funding Council has been working with the Local Government Association to develop proposals that would wipe out a system that leaves FEFC-funded colleges about 20 per cent worse off than the school sixth forms funded by local government.
Proposals to converge funding, mooted by the LGA, would give the FEFC more planning powers and enable it to close small school sixth forms. Such a plan would require legal changes to the FEFC's statutory position.
The LGA had hoped that the statutory changes would be heralded in the government's long-promised white paper on lifelong learning. "But now that the government has decided to downgrade the white paper to a green paper, we may have to see if we can amend the bill going through Parliament now," said LGA director of education, Graham Lane. He was seeking urgent meetings with the FEFC and education ministers to work out legislative details.
The LGA is looking for full convergence of funding between schools' and colleges' 16-19 provision. Local authorities, which fund the sixth forms, would work in partnership with the FEFC. They would take a much more direct role in planning provision across a region and apply the same funding methodology to schools and colleges.
Figures from the Department for Education and Employment for 1995-96 showed that colleges with middle-range levels of funding received only 93 per cent of the money that school sixth forms did. Data for 1996-97 is not yet available, but the FEFC estimates that the gap will be wider - as much as 20 per cent - as the average level of funding for colleges has been falling.
Mr Lane said that the situation is harming provision. "Students in sixth forms are funded much more generously and disproportionately," he said. "But it is not just about bad use of public money. The real issue is that too many students are getting on the wrong courses."
He said that schools were giving students the wrong careers advice: encouraging them to stay at school sixth forms, where far fewer courses are on offer.
He said that sixth forms with fewer than 100 students were "in trouble". "They are not offering the choice of courses," he said. "These proposals will affect small school sixth forms."
Geoff Daniels, FEFC assistant director of funding and institutions, said: "Closer collaboration and local sensible agreement do not require legislation. But the power Mr Lane is talking about is well beyond our current powers and would need legislation."