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Welsh FE sector claims victory after new Post-16 report, but did the ball really cross the

FFORWM ““ the organisation that represents the FE sector in Wales ““ has welcomed the findings of a new study into Post-16 learning provision. The study, carried out by the Welsh Assembly Government, is part of a continuing attempt in Wales to address the disparity in funding that exists between school sixth forms and FE colleges.

The debate over the controversial “funding gap” ““ which sees a disproportionate level of funding go to sixth forms – is being watched closely over the border in England, where a similar situation exists. The UK Government has so far managed to resist fully engaging with this thorny subject, and events in Wales could add even more fuel to calls for them to take action.

Stating the Obvious

In essence, the Welsh study spells out what everybody knows already: post-16 learning in school sixth forms is geared towards preparing students who get high GCSE grades for a University education. Although there have been attempts to broaden the scope of provision, most school sixth forms still prioritise academic over vocational qualifications, a policy which alienates 50% of post-16 learners.

The study also suggests that schools do not do enough to make students aware of the alternative options available at FE Colleges. It points out that, as well as a huge range of vocational options, the breadth of A-Level subjects offered by FE colleges is often much greater than that offered by sixth forms.

These conclusions have led FFORWM to hail the study as an argument in favour of FE institutions, implying that there is an urgent need to equalise funding between colleges and sixth forms. However, things are not quite that simple.

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Selective Recognition

FFORWM’s selective reading of the report is little more than positive spin. Crucially, the study also acknowledges that school sixth forms are at present “best equipped” to provide state funded learners with academic “gateway” qualifications to Higher Education. Any attempt to take funding away from them would hamper their ability to compete with the private sector, which might have the disastrous consequence of reducing the number of state school pupils securing places at top universities. For this reason, the prospect of school sixth forms closing because of funding cuts has provoked an angry reaction from parents in Wales.

In urging for greater co-operation and less competition between FE colleges and sixth forms, the study seems to suggest that levelling the playing field is not enough. It implies that there needs to be a massive long-term reorganisation of post-16 learning, not just a “quick fix” solution to the funding gap. This places the ball firmly at the feet of the Welsh Assembly government, and begs the all-important question: will the government in Westminster come out to play on this issue?

Joe Paget

Sixth form in school, or FE college? You decide in the FE Blog

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