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Over the last five years, further education colleges have helped a growing proportion of students to achieve their qualifications at the same time as supporting a big increase in student numbers. But further education colleges must make greater improvements in their student success rates, Sir John Bourn, Head of the National Audit Office, said today.

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Overall success rates1 – the proportion of qualification aims embarked upon that students successfully achieve – are only 56 per cent for 16-18s and 51 per cent for older students. In his report to Parliament, Sir John identified a number of good practices which the best colleges use – such as helping students to choose the right course – which would help other colleges to improve their student retention and achievement rates.

The report found that the rate of student achievement has increased from 65 per cent in 1994-95 to 74 per cent in 1998-99 (the latest year for which data are available). This improvement is due in part to initiatives by the Department for Education and Employment (the Department) and the Further Education Funding Council (the Funding Council) aimed at improving teaching quality and providing incentives for colleges to raise retention and achievement rates.

There are, however, significant variations in retention and – particularly – achievement rates between colleges. For general further education colleges and sixth form colleges, retention rates vary between 98 per cent and 72 per cent, and achievement rates vary between 98 per cent and 33 per cent. Although external factors such as the level of student deprivation and prior attainment of students explain part of the variation, other reasons include differences in ethos, systems, procedures and practices at individual colleges.

Some types of students find particular difficulty in achieving their qualifications. These include those employed for long hours of part-time work in parallel with their studies and students experiencing various kinds of deprivation.

The report makes a number of recommendations to colleges, and to the new Learning and Skills Council, on how to further improve student retention and achievement. These cover:

  • helping students to choose the right course, for example by providing better pre-enrolment information about the financial and time demands of different courses;
  • identifying and supporting students who are at greater risk of non-completion or non-achievement, for example by monitoring student absence closely and following up such absences promptly and sensitively;
  • encouraging good quality teaching and learning methods, including providing prompt, regular and constructive feedback to students on their performance;
  • helping students to develop good study techniques including providing advice on how to take notes effectively and how to set out written work coherently; and
  • assessing performance by collecting better information on the reasons for non-completion and improving the timeliness of published data.

"Further education colleges, with the support of the Funding Council and the Department, have done well over the past five years to increase the proportion of students who achieve their qualifications. In particular we were pleased to see that the number of colleges with overall achievement rates below 50 per cent has reduced dramatically.

"Overall success rates remain disappointing, however, and the gap between the best and worst performing colleges is still too wide. Poorer performing colleges need to adopt the good practices of the best if they are to help the Government meet the National Learning Targets2."

The further education sector provides a wide range of education and training opportunities to people from school leaving-age upwards. There are some 400 further education colleges in England, enabling 3.8 million students to study for some 17,000 different qualifications from about 480 awarding bodies, at a cost to the public purse of some £3 billion.

The Department for Education and Employment is responsible for determining the overall policy for further education and the Further Education Funding Council is responsible for implementing it. From April 2001 a new Learning and Skills Council will replace the Further Education Funding Council and Training and Enterprise Councils. (Training and Enterprise Councils are private sector companies which manage local training and enterprise activities under a performance-based contract with the Secretary of State for Employment).

1 Success rates are the number of qualification aims achieved as a proportion of those started, even though students may subsequently have dropped them. Achievement rates do not take account of qualifications started but not completed.

The National Learning Targets represent the Government’s aim of making a substantial improvement in participation and achievement in education and training at every level

' National Vocational Qualifications

'' General National Vocational Qualifications

The Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir John Bourn, is the head of the National Audit Office employing some 750 staff. He and the NAO are totally independent of Government. He certifies the accounts of all Government departments and a wide range of other public sector bodies; and he has statutory authority to report to Parliament on the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which departments and other bodies have used their resources.

Sir John Bourn


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