The move will be contained in the Competitiveness White Paper, which will propose payment for results for all school sixth forms. This will place sixth forms on the same funding basis as other further-education colleges, enabling vouchers to be used across schools and colleges.
Students would be able to "buy" training or courses in a further-education college, school or sixth-form college of their choice. The details of the scheme have not yet been worked out and it is too early to say whether the vouchers could be used in the private sector.
The plan is a victory for the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, and for right- wing Tories who want to promote market forces in education. They have out- manoeuvred Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, who has been resisting the proposals.
Mrs Shephard is worried that plans to fund sixth forms and further education colleges in the same way could force some small sixth forms to close.
Ministers face a conflict between their desire for more competition and their policy of supporting school sixth forms that are academically successful but not always economically viable. But the White Paper to be launched next Thursday by Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister,will press ahead with proposals to ensure that school sixth-formers are funded in the same way as further education students.
A report last year said that one of the main obstacles to the introduction of vouchers was cost.The average sixth-form course costs more than one in further education. Funding for further education and sixth-form colleges is based partly on exam results but for school sixth forms it is decided by the number of students. The White Paper will propose that sixth-form funding should be based in part on successful completion of A-level or vocational courses.
A consultation paper to be published by Mrs Shephard's departments will explore the options. For instance, schools might get more cash for students successfully completing three A-levels than for only two. Successful GCSE retakes might also attract funding. Schools would have an incentive to turn away less able sixth formers.
Stephen Byers, of Labour's frontbench education and employment team, said: "Gillian Shephard is being squeezed between an alliance between Kenneth Clarke and the Tory right who are in favour of vouchers."
Mrs Shephard is worried that the plans may backfire by damaging school sixth forms, favoured by middle class parents. In colleges, almost all funding follows the student while in schools only four-fifths does so and there is protection for those with only a few pupils. A recent report by accountants Coopers & Lybrand said a sixth-form education cost pounds 3,500 per year while a further-education college course cost pounds 3,300.
Ministers tried to introduce vouchers for this age group two years ago, but the scheme stalled after this cost difference was revealed. Now ministers are arguing that the sixth-form courses cost only slightly more than further education if the calculation is based on students successfully completing three A-levels.
Schools and colleges reacted with anger to the idea of vouchers last night, saying that they were designed to drive down the cost of education. They also said there was no need to introduce market forces into 16-19 education because competition for students was already fierce. The real problem was attracting adults, they said.
John Dunford, president of the Secondary Heads' Association, said schools were already responding well to the needs of 16-year-olds.
"This would be a completely unnecessary and retrograde step which would involve a huge bureaucracy. We do not need a voucher system," he said.
Colin Flint, principal of Solihull College and a council member of the Association for Colleges, said he was not against vouchers but they were not needed. "A very hard-nosed market-driven system which was all about outcomes would not be helpful," he said.
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