This year, we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the 1944 Education Act, which delivered universal, free secondary education. As we do so, we should also recall one of its less contentious, yet least realised, ambitions: the development of effective vocational education. There is every danger that it could become the forgotten part of today's 14-19 reform agenda, unless ministers properly recognise its importance.
Some 110,000 14- to 16-year-olds spend several hours every week at their local FE college, studying for vocational GCSEs or for other practical qualifications. But, while the Government supports such flexible provision, funding is not enough. And the worry is that, as such provision expands, education will happen on the cheap.
Lorraine Dowson, who co-ordinates 14-16 provision at Bury College, gave me an insight into the funding problem. Three hundred students there benefit from an imaginative range of courses tailored to meet their different needs and aptitudes.
Level 1 engineering courses cater for the practically-minded. There are masterclasses in French, chemistry and graphic design for the most able. Students prepare for vocational GCSEs in applied business studies, leisure and tourism, health and social care, and engineering, with engineering (encouragingly) being the most popular of the four. The college works with 12 local secondary schools.
It is doing everything the Government expects, and it is making a big difference to the lives of hundreds of local teenagers. Yet Bury only receives £100,000 a year for "increased flexibility" at 14-16, while it costs the college £20,000 more - not counting all the overheads - to deliver the programme. "The funding simply doesn't meet all of the costs of setting up these courses, employing teachers, developing the curriculum and providing pastoral support," says Dowson.
Bury is not alone. I have heard similar tales from Newcastle to Devon. Nationally, the Government provides colleges with £38m a year, but if its plans are to be realised, it needs to increase funding to £146m a year by the end of the spending review period in 2007-8.
The underfunding of 14-16 courses is part of a wider problem facing colleges. The 16- to 19-year-olds in FE and sixth-form colleges are taught the same A-level subjects to the same standard by teachers who may well earn less than their counterparts in schools. Paul Mackney, the general secretary of the lecturers' union, NATFHE, rightly argues: "College lecturers have performed miracles with students often written off by the rest of society. It is high time the Government gave colleges enough money to ensure that no lecturer earns less than their school-teacher equivalents."
Inadequate funding also affects innovative adult provision, when colleges are forced to conform to national targets. Here, the Government is moving in the right direction by seeking to credit achievement properly, but funding is focused on meeting rigid targets.
Colleges are trying to deliver imaginative new policies without adequate resources to make them work properly. That's why, later this month, on 19 May, we will be helping to organise the National Parliamentary Day for Colleges, to share these stories with MPs and ministers. At the moment we have the chance to influence the spending allocations for the next three years so that FE gets an adequate settlement. Everyone working and studying in colleges should make sure their voice is heard.
The writer is chief executive of the Association of Colleges. For more on the Parliamentary Day, phone Shonali Rodrigues at AoC on 020-7827 4600Reuse content