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Friday, 2 March, 2001, 00:36 GMT
College students still flunking courses
More than four in every 10 of England's further education students still fail to get the qualifications they set out to achieve.
A report by the National Audit Office says the success rate was only 56% among 16 to 18 year olds and 51% among adult students in 1998-99, the most recent available data.
It says things have improved in recent years but more still needs to be done.
The report gives examples of successful strategies some FE and sixth form colleges have come up with in an effort to improve the situation.
The head of the audit office, Sir John Bourn, said colleges must help students choose the right course in the first place and give them better information about the costs and time demands involved before they start.
Work and study
They must also do more to identify students who are likely to drop out, for example by keeping tabs on their attendance then finding out the reasons for non-attendance "promptly and sensitively".
Students most "at risk" are those working long hours as well as studying, and students experiencing "various kinds of deprivation".
Quality of teaching is also a factor, though students are understandably often reluctant to tell their teachers this when asked why they are giving up, the report says.
Sir John said that further education colleges, supported by the Further Education Funding Council and the Department for Education, had done well to improve success rates.
"Overall success rates remain disappointing, however, and the gap between the best and worst performing colleges is still too wide."
Nearly four million people are studying in more than 400 FE institutions, at an annual cost of £3bn.
Retention rates varied widely from 98% down to 72%, the report found. The overall drop-out rate was 15%.
Ministers have set a target that by December 2002, 85% of 19 year olds should have five A* to C grade GCSE passes or the equivalent vocational qualifications.
In autumn 1999 the figure was just under 75%, up only 1% on the year before.
And the government wants 28% of adults to have a degree or higher level vocational qualification by December 2002, up from 26.6% in 1999.
The chairman of the Commons public accounts committee, David Davis, said: "Student success rates in the further education sector need to be significantly improved if the government is to achieve its national learning targets for 2002.
"What is most stark about today's NAO report is the significant variation in the level of student achievement between colleges, with rates ranging from 98% to 33%.
"This must represent an unacceptable waste of student potential at the poorer performing colleges."
The main lecturers' union in the further education sector, Natfhe, said student achievement and retention would be greatly improved by a substantial investment in teaching.
It called again for the reintroduction of maintenance grants for post-16 students, including adults.
"The difference in performance between sixth form colleges and general FE colleges bears out the union's warning about the dangers of a two-tier post-16 system," Natfhe said.
"Increasing selection in post-16 education results in FE colleges teaching many students with poor experiences of learning.
"Additional resources and teaching support are needed to help students with lesser academic skills to achieve."
Improving FE lecturers' pay, conditions and qualifications to the level of schoolteachers and sixth form college lecturers would vastly improve teaching quality in colleges and student attainment, it added.
Natfhe's general secretary, Paul Mackney, said: "Colleges can meet the government's learning, access and retention targets if it invests in high quality teaching.
"That means a fully qualified teaching force with lecturers earning a professional rate of pay for delivering a professional service."
A Department for Education spokeswoman said further education was being given more money.
The new Learning and Skills Council, which will be responsible for funding school sixth forms as well as sixth form and FE colleges, starts work next month and will "take robust action to assist colleges in improving student success", she said.
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers said there was a danger that colleges would be discouraged from taking on those high-risk students who stood to gain the most.
It disliked the way not completing a course was equated with failure.
"When a student benefits enough from a short period in college to achieve employment then failure to complete should be redefined as success in employability," it said.
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