Sixth-formers forced to pay to study for A-levels

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Sixth-form colleges are charging students up-front fees of up to pounds 120 to enrol for A-levels courses although, by law, tuition must be free for students up to the age of 18. Lucy Ward and Louise Hancock found cash-strapped colleges asking parents to bail them out.

More than two-thirds of sixth form colleges are asking students to pay registration fees or contribute towards books or examination costs, according to an Independent survey

Though some are charging as little as pounds 5 or pounds 10, many more, particularly in affluent areas of the South-east, are asking for sums of pounds 100 or more, generating tens of thousands of pounds annually for college funds.

Principals say they are levying charges or asking for named voluntary contributions with great reluctance, but insist they must find alternative sources of income when state funding is too low to protect quality. They protest that colleges are being expected to compete for students with school sixth forms despite receiving significantly lower funding.

The growing trend, which has seen dozens of sixth form colleges introduce or raise charges or requests for contributions this term, is raising alarm among many principals.

They warn that "hidden charging", which is not being monitored nationally, is concealing serious inadequacies in the funding of sixth-form education.

The issue will also raise questions for the Government over how far private individuals should be asked to subsidise state education. Ministers have already taken the decision to charge students for part of their university tuition fees from next year.

Legally, sixth-form colleges are not permitted to charge tuition fees for full-time students aged 16 to 18, but each institution is free to charge for registration, exam fees or books and other materials.

The Independent's survey of 60 colleges - just over half the total - revealed examples such as the College of Richard Collyer in Horsham, West Sussex, where students are asked to pay a pounds 120 registration fee for their two-year course, and buy their own books and materials at an estimated cost of pounds 26 a year.

The fee, up from pounds 100 last year, brought in pounds 60,000 this year, and the college saved pounds 26,000 on books and materials. Charges are waived for low- income families.

At The Sixth Form College, Farnborough, which gained one of the best inspection reports in the sector, new students paid a pounds 100 registration fee this term. Dr John Guy, the principal, who has raised concerns over colleges' financial position with the Department for Education and Employment, said: "College governors introduced the fee in order to protect the high quality of education demonstrated by our inspection report."

The Further Education Funding Council, the quango which distributes funding to colleges, pledged yesterday to examine the growth of charging after being questioned on the trend by The Independent.