Leading article: Colleges deserve more

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The Independent Online

Schools, celebrities and college students will join together today in a campaign to press the Government to close the grossly unjust funding gap between school sixth forms and local sixth-form and further education colleges.

Schools, celebrities and college students will join together today in a campaign to press the Government to close the grossly unjust funding gap between school sixth forms and local sixth-form and further education colleges. The Association of Colleges (AoC) says that colleges receive at least 10 per cent less funding per student than schools for providing exactly the same courses. Some principals, however, say that the gap is larger - as big as 40 per cent - because of the harsh penalties that colleges face when students drop out of courses.

A typical college would be £500,000 a year better off if the funding gap were closed, the AoC says. With that money, colleges would be able to improve the quality of their facilities and courses, and treat staff better. That colleges have been unfairly under-funded is widely accepted. The Government pledged to plug the gap in its 2001 manifesto by raising college budgets and has made strides towards equality by increasing college budgets at a faster rate than school budgets. But it argues that the historical patterns of underfunding will take a long time to address. The influential Education and Skills select committee in the House of Commons agrees with the broad thrust of the AoC's argument; it concluded last month that the Government should do more to address the funding gap between schools and colleges. and accused it of using colleges to provide education on the cheap.

The campaign will star former college students including the actor Stephen Fry, who took his A-levels at City College Norwich after being expelled from school and jailed for credit-card fraud. There can be little doubt that colleges are getting a raw deal. They educate more than four million pupils, including 701,000 aged 16 to 18 who choose to attend, compared with only 345,000 in school sixth forms.

On top of this, the Government drive to give disaffected 14-year-olds time out of school to study vocational courses has meant that more than 110,000 younger people are studying in colleges. The radical shake-up of secondary education proposed by Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools, will accelerate that trend. It is not right for this historical funding disparity to be allowed to continue. The Government has already made welcome steps towards greater fairness. Now it needs to do so with more urgency. It should put its money where its mouth is.

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