A late draft of the Government's White Paper on post-16 education, to be published today, says that Britain's system of education and training has "serious weaknesses' and needs radical reform.
The paper praises high standards in many areas but is highly critical of standards in many parts of the college, sixth-form and training system, arguing that gaps between the best and worst are too wide and calling for "a major drive to raise standards". It seeks a comprehensive overhaul of the way colleges, sixth forms and training organisations are funded, planned and inspected.
The document said:"The current system is failing a significant section of the community, often the most vulnerable and disadvantaged."
The paper, Learning to Succeed, proposes a new support service for children over 13 to guarantee impartial careers advice to all youngsters and cut high drop-out rates among school leavers. It also opens the door to 14- year-olds being taught in colleges as an alternative to school.
It outlines a new super- quango, the Learning and Skills Council, to control adult and further education and training and a new inspectorate for colleges and training organisations. It also proposes streamlining the maze of funding authorities and suggests moves to limit competition between schools and colleges.
The paper stops short of recommending a level playing field for school and college funding, but warns that local learning and skills councils would be able to recommend the closure or merger of any school sixth form failing to improve.
The paper describes some schools and colleges as "beacons of excellence" but delivers a sharp critique of standards in many sixth forms and colleges. In school sixth forms, for example, A-level performance varies between an average five points per student - the equivalent of just over two E grades - to 30 points - the equivalent of three As.
Sixth forms with fewer than 50 students "do not perform as well on average as those with 200 students". Small sixth forms are attacked as offering "poor value for money". Colleges and training organisations also come in for serious criticism from ministers, who attack the huge variations in standards up and down the country.
The document says: "The existing framework for post-16 education and training will not support our goals. Too many people drop out at 16. Too little support and guidance is offered to young people as they face the most critical career decisions of their lives.
"The range and quality of opportunities available to those who stay on - or proceed to work-based training - are too often insufficient. There are too many people with few, if any qualifications and too many with low skills. Without urgent action to tackle these problems, the risk of social exclusion will grow as sophistication in information and other new technologies increases."
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