Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)




  1. This afternoon we are considering the Comptroller and Auditor General's Report on improving student performance in English further education colleges. I would like to start by welcoming our two witnesses, Sir Michael Bichard, for his last outing before us—

  (Sir Michael Bichard) Unless I am back in another guise.

  2. That is possible. And Professor David Melville, Chief Executive of the Further Education Funding Council. Both of you are attending your last hearings in your current roles although we look forward to seeing you in another capacity. You are both familiar with the procedure so I will go straight into the first question which relates to Paragraph 1.4, which notes that the Government has invested an extra £725 million in further education in 1999-2000 and in 2000-01, linked to raising standards and improving retention and achievement. When can we expect to see the results working through? The answer "after we have retired" is not acceptable!
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I think the answer is that we are already seeing some of the benefits of the recent investment feeding through and I think although this Report is about how we can improve retention and achievement, the point needs to be made that there have been improvements, particularly with achievement, and we have maintained numbers on retention in the face of increased participation. We are making additional investment in things like the quality of teaching, in the mandatory qualification for teachers, in the new inspection process, in providing Access monies to support students from particularly deprived communities who are suffering real problems which, as this Report points out, is likely to make it more likely they do drop out or do not achieve. We cannot expect that investment to produce results immediately but I think we ought to be able to see improvements within 18 months. Equally the investment in the Connexions Service and the support that that should provide to students in making the decisions on what courses they go to, all of that I think ought to produce results pretty quickly.

  3. I am sure others will come back on that. Let me pick up on one aspect of this. How much of the improvement required to meet the National Learning Targets do you expect to get from the further education sector? Based on progress so far, what are the prospects for meeting these targets?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) The two targets where we have got difficulties are on level 2 and level 3. The vast majority of the other targets I am very confident that we will achieve. I am not so confident about those two, partly because the current state of the labour market means that people do have a real choice as to whether or not they go into work and we know that some students are going into work and not continuing their studies and one of the things that the FEFC and Professor Melville have been trying to do is to encourage employers to help people finish their course of study. I cannot give you a definitive answer on levels 2 and 3, but I am quite prepared to accept that those we are looking at are stretching. We need to remember however that since 1996—

  4. Is "stretching" a euphemism for a problem?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) It is like "challenge"! We have not got last year's results yet and I will reserve judgment until then but I did want to make the point that since 1996, in level 2 we have seen a 6 per cent improvement and in level 3 an 8 per cent improvement, so although achieving the national targets may prove to be quite difficult in those two areas that is not to say that we have not achieved quite a lot in the last four years.

  5. Again, others may come back on that. Let me move to Figure 15 on Page 33 and Appendix 4, which show that there are all sorts of problems with measuring performance in the current sector. Yet the responsibilities of the Learning and Skills Council will grow to cover over 5,000 organisations. How certain are you that the new Council will be able to assure itself about the quality of education and performance in a much larger sector?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I am obviously very confident about the Learning and Skills Council, although again we cannot point to its obvious success. One of the things the Learning and Skills Council will be able to do is to apply rigorous review at a local level. We are talking about colleges having mandatory self-assessment with development plans, we are talking about local Learning and Skills Councils reviewing on a four-monthly basis how providers are doing. I think there will be a very close monitoring of providers by the Learning and Skills Councils and I am confident that that will have an impact.

  6. I was looking at Paragraph 5.10 in the context of all this. It is phrased quite nicely but what it really says is that 50 per cent are doing rather less well than good. Remembering my own school reports "satisfactory" was a euphemism for "unsatisfactory". Can you comment on that?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) This is interesting because this morning I asked about that figure which rather worried me and I was told that this was partly because the Inspector was being even more rigorous now than was the case before. Professor Melville has just whispered to me that it is a wrong figure which helps me greatly. I understand it should be 62 per cent and not 50 per cent. If that is the case it is still a slight reduction but it is not as dramatic a figure as in the Report. I would have to seek advice.

  7. You signed off this Report, gentlemen, so it should not be wrong.
  (Professor Melville) It is perhaps the one error that we have spotted so far that we did not spot before.

  8. What is the standard on arithmetic?
  (Professor Melville) If it is helpful I can give you just by way of amelioration the figure for 2001 that will go in there, and it is 64 per cent. I think it indicates that these figures are more or less sticking.

  9. That is "good" or better?
  (Professor Melville) At the "good" or "outstanding" level.

  10. It still leaves a chunk.
  (Professor Melville) That is right.

  11. It is still merely satisfactory. As I say, casting my mind back to my own school report, I think I got a hiding for "satisfactory".
  (Professor Melville) We have three categories at that point, "satisfactory", "good" and "outstanding", so it is the ones above "satisfactory".

  12. Finally before I turn to Professor Melville, Paragraph 2.24 really relates to a point you raised earlier, and notes that students that enter further education under widening participation initiatives do not do as well. In view of this, to what extent are your objectives of improving achievement rates, at the same time as widening participation rates, consistent and achievable? It is a very important aspect of Government policy here.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) The reality is that we have been successful. We have raised participation by something like 70 per cent in recent years and we have maintained levels of retention and we have improved levels of achievement. Even until this point we have been successful. Back to your very first question, the investment that we are now making in increased Access support, paying child care, Access support on residential and transport issues, the work that we are doing with education maintenance allowances, again providing support to students, the work that we are doing through the new Connexions Service which will begin to roll out from April—

  13. Sure, that is all in the right direction but what worries me about this—and this is a very important issue here—is that you have got quite a significant variation in performance, have you not?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) Yes.

  14. Some colleges do rather well in what would normally be considered poor areas—for example Knowsley—and others do not. What are you doing about that? That is the thing that worries me. I know you are putting money in but how will it deliver?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) The bottom line is that the quality of teaching and the quality of management and leadership within our colleges has a huge impact upon achievement and retention and we are investing very large sums of money to improve the quality of teaching. We are looking at new pay arrangements that will reward high-calibre teachers and keep them in the FE college rather than putting them into management. I think that this will have a really significant effect on the figures. They are too wide, you are absolutely right, the variation at the moment is too great. What this Report does is to produce some very good examples of good practice. Most of the things that need to be done in all colleges are being done in some colleges already—monitoring performance, monitoring attendance, targeting pupils, all of this is being done. What we need to try and do, as with any distributary system, is make sure it is done consistently across the system.

  15. Others I am sure will come back on that, it is such a central area. Let me turn to Professor Melville. Paragraph 2.21 is the first issue. It shows that overall student success rates are only 56 per cent for 16-18 year olds and 51 per cent for older students. Why are success rates so low, and what further steps are you taking or are needed to ensure that further education meets its share of the Government's national targets?
  (Professor Melville) It is clear in the Report, let me stress this, that the success rate refers to qualifications and not to student numbers. If I can explain what that does to achievement rates. For example, a student who takes three A-levels who also might take a computing course on the side may not pass the computing course, or choose not to take it because of the pressure of exams, produces an achievement figure of only three out of four and therefore 75 per cent, so some of these success rates are produced by what we would call a depression of achievement rates.

  16. It is dealt with in a number of figures. Paragraphs 2.3 and 2.22 and Figure 3 on Page 9 and Appendix 1 show that retention and achievement rates for full-time students vary significantly (between 33 and 98 per cent on achievement rates alone). Again, this is wide variation and that does tend to say to me that there are some poor standards in some places.
  (Professor Melville) And that is absolutely right. The most unacceptable, going back to your earlier question, is the range. As the Permanent Secretary says, there is good practice of this kind somewhere in the system, and one of the things that we have been doing since we have had the Standards Fund is giving colleges that do well in particular areas—and we have had some focusing on retention and achievement (Knowsley is a notable example you have mentioned)—funds to disseminate good practice to help other colleges to improve. We have had a specific focus, noted well in the Report, on those colleges who have below 50 per cent achievement. We felt that was totally unacceptable and we needed to focus on those. The number has gone down from 60 to 10 in the latest Report[1], but our understanding is now that is probably round about five colleges below 50 per cent. So it is a specific focus on one end while levering up the whole, and we are seeing achievement going up steadily, and that is a success story from the Standards Fund and the approach we have been taking in dealing with these outliers.

  Chairman: That is interesting. I am sure again others will want to come back on that. Let's open it up and go to Mr David Rendel.

Mr Rendel

  17. Good afternoon, gentlemen. The first question I have picks up on what the Chairman asked about at the beginning, the investment of the 725 million. I think, Mr Bichard, you mentioned inspection, teachers and payment towards deprived students as being particular ways in which this money was being invested. Unless I failed to hear you properly, you did not mention the provision of better equipment in the colleges. Is that not a significant factor? If it is not should it not be?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I think it should be, particularly with ICT equipment. I think I normally answer at too great a length, so it is difficult to cover everything in an answer, certainly equipment, resources and people are the keys to success.

  18. Do you know how much of that 725 has been invested in equipment?
  (Professor David Melville) What has happened since 1997 is the reintroduction of the capital line[2], which now stands at about £100 million. We have an overall programme related to IT that is on top of that, and that stands at about £75 million.

  19. Are you talking about 175 million out of 725 million?
  (Professor David Melville) I think I can give you the precise figure in a note[3].

1   Note by Witness: The figure has decreased from 61 to 10 in the latest Report. Back

2   Note by Witness: The reintroduction of the capital line, occurred since 1999, not 1997 as stated. Back

3   Note: See Evidence, Appendix 1, page 21 (PAC 00-01/165). Back

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