Ministers' A-level reforms will alienate poorer students and undermine widening access plans, delegates at the Association of Colleges' annual 16-19 conference heard this week, writes Phil Baty.
Reforms will mean a significant increase in teacher/student contact hours from September and will make it difficult for students to maintain the part-time jobs that over half of 16 and 17-year-olds undertake to support study, said John Brennan, director of further education development at the AoC.
The reforms are designed to encourage students to sit key skills exams and up to five AS levels in the first year of sixth-form study, moving to more focused study in the final year. But the AoC warned that more than 25 per cent of college students come from the most deprived local authority wards, and rely on part-time jobs.
"These students are the most likely to drop out or be unable to take advantage of the improved opportunities which will be available unless they can find other financial support while studying."
The AoC has long been campaigning against the government's changes to student support arrangements. It argues that while the new Education Maintenance Allowance is being piloted in selected areas, students outside pilot areas are suffering. The AoC said that additional access funds made available outside the pilot areas are "wholly inadequate".
The AoC also warned that small school sixth forms will fail to deliver the broadened curriculum without partnership with "cost-effective" colleges. The AoC is arguing that this curriculum funding problem provides the perfect opportunity for ministers to level-out funding disparities between the school and college sectors, without having to close inefficient, small school sixth forms.
Colleges could deliver the new A-level curriculum with an additional Pounds 35 million a year - or Pounds 700 per student - which would bring college funding for 16 to 19-year-olds up to the same levels that school sixth forms already receive. If additional funds were channelled exclusively to colleges, the AoC said, small school sixth forms could enter into partnership arrangements with colleges to enable them to deliver the new curriculum.
As The THES went to press funding council chief David Melville was due to announce details of additional funding for the new curriculum. "This will go a long way to creating a level playing field between FE and school sixth forms," he was due to say.
The conference also heard that ministers' plans to introduce performance-related pay for school teachers could severely damage recruitment to sixth-form colleges. Sue Whitham, head of secretariat at the Sixth Form College's Employers' Forum, said that the college sector was already facing a skills shortage, as teachers move to schools where they get better terms and conditions. The planned increases in school teachers' pay will make the pay gap even worse, she said.