Opposition peers protested over the uncertainty facing sixth-forms in their funding under the new Learning and Skills Council - and over the lack of criteria to be used if they were to be deemed to be failing and closed down.
Ofsted will assume inspection of further education colleges under the Learning and Skills Bill, which continued its committee stage. The government says the same standards must apply in all post-16 education and training, whether provided in FE colleges, sixth form colleges or school sixth forms. But these criteria are not set out in the Bill. An attempt by Conservative peers - supported by some Liberal democrats and crossbenchers -to spell these out in the legislation was defeated by 114 votes to 79.
Conservative frontbencher Baroness Blatch said a great deal of uncertainty began for sixth forms because of the new funding system. The local skills council would make grants to LEAs for sixth-form provision, which they in turn would distribute to schools as part of their local schools' budget. No one knew the formula the local skills council would use and, in addition, different LEAs had different funding priorities for sixth forms.
'There are also questions about whether a local learning and skills council could look at sixth forms in its area, make value for money judgments and determine what is taught and where, such as rationalising the teaching of minority subjects at the expense of parental and pupil choice. Both situations would be unacceptable.'
Baroness Blatch said one of the greatest threats to sixth forms was the local skills councils' powers to propose closure of inadequate sixth forms, but no details were given of what constituted a weakness: could it be that only a small number of students were taking a subject in a rural school? And no procedures were set out to tackle problems and help turn the sixth forms around. 'It is important to note that not only may the inspections be carried out by persons other than Ofsted inspectors, but there is also no minimum period between inspections', added Baroness Blatch.
She said it was important that sixth forms have representation on the national and local councils, and were consulted properly on changes to post-16 provision - especially because they accounted for one-sixth of the LSC's£6bn budget.
Supporting the Conservative amendment, crossbencher Baroness Warnock: 'It is totally unclear from the Bill as it stands what criteria (for closure) will be used. A new Sword of Damocles is hanging over schools. They will not be clear from reading the Bill what it is their duty to provide'.
Education minister Baroness Blackstone said it would be wrong to apply different standards in one sector from the other. The effect of the Conservative amendment would be to ensure different and possibly less rigorous standards applied in one or other of the schools or FE sector.
She added: 'They seem to be driven by an attachment to sixth forms which is perhaps a little blind to the need to take action to address poor standards. Having secured a level playing field in inspection, we need to ensure that it is followed up with equal rigour in both sectors. If any provider of post-16 education fails to provide the standards which students deserve, it must make the necessary improvements without delay, or face the possible consequences'.