The idea of programmes of study comes from Alison Wolf’s review of vocational education. However, the Department for Education emphasises that the principles will apply to all full-time students in state-funded provision.
At the heart of the proposal is a wish to remove perverse incentives that can result in young people taking large numbers of qualifications of limited value. Instead, schools, colleges and other providers will receive lump sum payments to cover the cost of programmes which provide at least one qualification of substantial size, non-qualification activity such as tutorial time, internships (where appropriate) and English and maths for any students yet to achieve GCSE grade C or above.
The Department for Education is keen to point out that this gives providers more freedom to design courses which meet the needs of their students. In addition, the new system will be consistent with pre-16 arrangements. In principle, that's good news.
On the other hand, the government says the majority of study programmes could be delivered in around 600 hours. This might sound generous, but many schools and colleges are currently funded for quite a lot more than this – in some cases, up to around 720 hours. Is this a round-about way of cutting post-16 funding? If so, a lot of students will find they can no longer enrol for as many qualifications as used to be on offer. In fact, the government might be creating a perverse incentive to offer the smallest, least expensive programme possible.
What's more, funding for enrichment activities including tutorial support, access to careers information and work experience has already been reduced. It's hard to see how young people's needs will be fully met in the future.
Edge is, of course, especially interested in technical, practical and vocational learning. One of our big worries is whether the new funding system will adequately reflect the extra costs associated with courses in areas such as engineering and hospitality. Although the YPLA consultation paper suggests a system of banding to reflect different costs, many of us can remember the 1980s and 90s when colleges had to close valuable vocational facilities because they could no longer balance the books. We can't afford to let that happen a second time.
Another concern is the approach to English and maths for young people who haven't yet achieved a grade C GCSE. Alison Wolf was right when she said that these are important vocational subjects. However, is it right to put so much emphasis on GCSEs? On the one hand, employers are looking for good communication and number skills, not necessarily a grade C GCSE. And on the other, results often go down if young people are forced to keep re-sitting the same old GCSEs, term after term. I would feel much happier if needs could be met by embedding maths and English into other subjects, and by building on existing Functional Skills qualifications.
Summing up, giving young people broad programmes of study at 16 is fine in principle: as ever, the devil is in the detail. Simpler funding systems are also welcome – but only if they avoid replacing one perverse incentive with another.
Jan Hodges is chief executive of Edge, the independent education foundation dedicated to raising the status of technical, practical and vocational learning
For more information about Edge visit www.edge.co.uk