Labour ministers worry about what pollsters call "the perception gap".

Labour ministers worry about what pollsters call "the perception gap". People apparently notice the new science block at their local school, but don't thank the Government. More money has gone to schools but colleges have not fared nearly as well - and this has widened the gap in resources between school and college sixth forms.

So, in further education, there is also a perception gap, but it is between what ministers think is happening and what is actually occurring in colleges. And the gap in funding for sixth-formers is the most glaring.

The Association of Colleges calculates that a student studying for three A-levels in a school sixth form receives at least 10 per cent more than a student taking exactly the same subjects at college. Yet college students are far more likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds - 27 per cent of college students come from the 15 per cent most deprived wards in the country.

This is not abstract accountancy, as college principals who lobbied MPs last month were keen to demonstrate. One of them, David Igoe, who runs Cadbury College, a Birmingham sixth-form college with 1,300 students, told me what he could do with an extra £494,000 - a sum that would put him on a par with his local schools. "I could employ an extra 16, full-time teachers," Igoe said. "Or I could also take on another 25 support and technical staff."

Alternatively, he could buy a thousand new networked and internet-ready PCs, or use the cash towards commissioning badly needed new buildings. Unlike secondary schools, which benefit from the Government's multi-billion-pound "Building Schools of the Future" project, where they are all promised new or refurbished buildings by 2015, colleges must find two-thirds of their funding themselves.

The Cadbury College is popular with the city's diverse population, and takes many students from poorer backgrounds - 60 per cent are eligible for education maintenance allowances. And, like many sixth-form colleges, its size allows it to deliver more choice than school sixth forms for many A-level students and a specialist focus on 16- to 19-year-olds. Nationally, twice as many students of this age study in college as in schools.

The sixth-form gap produces many indefensible anomalies. In a recent parliamentary debate, David Drew, the Labour MP for Stroud, pointed out that even where schools and colleges work together in his constituency to provide the sort of sixth-form consortium arrangements that the Government rightly encourages, lecturers and teachers are being paid very differently.

Labour has put more money into further education, but too much has been targeted at short-term initiatives, and too little at improving core college funding. The further education minister, Ivan Lewis, says that the Government must prioritise how it distributes the money awarded to the Department for Education and Skills for the next three years.

Yet he concedes that one of those priorities is enabling 16- to 19-year-olds to continue in education. That, too, was what Tony Blair promised at Labour's spring conference.

To do so, he must convince people like Sid Hughes, the principal of Newham College, in East London. Hughes recognises that there has been some extra funding to cover the cost of new students, but local schools have done better. "The growing funding gap between schools and colleges means that the potential contribution we could make to this challenging agenda is unlikely to be realised," he says. It is surely time to close the sixth-form gap.

The author is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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