Middle classes told to give up school funding

Britain's middle classes must give up their privileged access to the lion's share of education funding to help the poor and unqualified, even at the cost of cuts to A-level classes and closures of school sixth forms, a high-profile government report will say next week.

A committee of leading educationalists and industrialists, led by Helena Kennedy QC, will on Budget Day call on Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, to break the Government's two-year public spending freeze to pump more money into widening access to education. Meanwhile, the committee will say, a wholesale redistribution of cash is needed in favour of helping those with few or no qualifications.

The report, "Learning Works", to be launched by Ms Kennedy together with David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, will seek to put further education colleges - often regarded as the Cinderellas of the education world - at the forefront of a crusade to bring an army of people back into learning.

Colleges should be key to the Government's regeneration policies, Ms Kennedy will say, boosting Britain's skills base and helping education fill the vacuum at the heart of communities once occupied by the Church.

However, in an interview with The Independent, Ms Kennedy admitted a price would have to be paid for the redistribution of funds. The committee's recommendation of equity of funding of A-level age students in schools and colleges might well see the closure of small school sixth forms, which at present attract more cash per student than colleges, she said. There was no room for sentimentality and parents would have to get over any reluctance to send children to colleges at 16. Within colleges, A-level classes full of high-fliers who could manage with less support might find themselves facing cuts to fund students with greater needs.

More controversial still were leaked early suggestions from the committee that university budgets could be raided to boost further education, in another example of the elite being asked to make sacrifices to help the underprivileged. However, it emerged yesterday that, under pressure from vice-chancellors, Ms Kennedy was persuaded at the eleventh hour to add a clause in her report reassuring the university sector that further education had no designs on its coffers. Instead colleges sought a levelling-up of funding by persuading the Government to give more to post-16 education overall, the new paragraph says.

Despite the amendment, Ms Kennedy made clear her impatience with universities "Rushing round like frightened rabbits" at the thought of losing money. Higher education would still be expected to contribute to her committee's proposed "Learning Regeneration Fund" aimed at bringing educational opportunities to deprived areas, she said.

As well as a move towards more accreditable funding in school sixth forms, colleges and universities, the Kennedy committee also wants to see reform of student financial support, which at present awards grants to full-time university students but none to adult further education students or those studying at university part-time.

The committee proposes a universal lifetime entitlement to education up to level three - A-level standard or its equivalent.

Many of the committee's proposals, including moves to dedicate Lottery funding to the launch of a "Learning Into the New Millennium Initiative" will be likely to find widespread support in further education and among ministers. Ms Kennedy suggest colleges will have to venture off campus to venues such as betting shops, pubs or snooker halls, to teach reluctant learners on their home ground.

The GCSE examination may have to be scrapped to stop young people dropping out of school, Nick Tate, the Government's chief adviser on the curriculum, has suggested. In two speeches this week Dr Tate pointed out that Britain is one of the few countries that retain two sets of external examinations, one at 16 (GCSE) and one at 18.(A-level). Instead of GCSE students might accumulate credits, including vocational qualifications, on their way to a school-leaving exam at 18.

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