Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)



  20. What about buildings, does that also come out of capital fund?
  (Professor David Melville) Within the capital fund what the Funding Council does, and it has been able to have considerable impact on the capital stock, is we provide loan support, and there has been very large gearing. We have had about £1 billion of investment into the FE sector as a result of gearing and what the government has provided in loan support. Now that we have a slightly more generous capital regime we provide one third of the cost of capital projects that meet the criteria, and that is applied over a three year period. The net result is that since incorporation 26 per cent of all of the capital stock, all of the floor area in further education, have been replaced or refurbished.

  21. I now want to move on to the reasons why students leave before completing their studies. There is some very interesting stuff in part 2 of this Report about that, and figures 6, 7 and 10 in particular in paragraph 22 all refer to that. Can I ask about the 10 colleges with achievements rates still below 50 per cent. That seems very low, and remarkably, looking at Figure 6 in particular, there seems to be a huge variation in the total of achievement rates. Some specialist colleges having 100 per cent achievement rate and some as low as about 26 per cent or 27 cent, which is a huge variation. Can you tell me, first of all, whether any of those ten colleges with achievement rates below 50 per cent had achievement rates below 50 per cent four years ago when the improvements began?
  (Professor David Melville) Those figures refer to 1998-99 when there were 10 colleges in that category. Since then four of those have been the subject of mergers. One of our policies has been to encourage mergers where besides financial problems there are quality problems and the college can gain by merging with a better college. We have encouraged that and supported it. The most recent figures are not available but my estimate is we are now down to about five, at the most, who are in the below 50 per cent category. We are working closely with all of those colleges in order to try and get them out of that. That is a very small proportion, 1 per cent of the sector.

  22. That is very useful information but not actually the question I asked, which was, first of all, whether four years earlier those 10 were also below 50 per cent.
  (Professor David Melville) I would have to have notice of that.

  23. The importance of that question is that if they were, and this was the period during which you were trying to make improvements, it is significant that those failed to improve during that period.
  (Professor David Melville) Sorry I misunderstood your question, were the 10 included in the 61? I believe that most of them were. We could pick that out in detail. Obviously the answer to the second part of your question is that some have proved more intractable than others in terms of shifting, some had further to travel. What I am certain of is that one or two in that list have, in fact, now made significant improvements and are in excess of 60 per cent in one or two cases.

  24. 60 per cent is still a lot below 100 per cent of the best. Do you have any feel why some are so much worse than others?
  (Professor David Melville) I think some of the reasons are explored in the Report. One of the characteristics of colleges that do well in this area is that they have a straightforward and significant strategy associated with retention and achievement. We have gradually shifted from a point where this was not a major issue for colleges, where governors tended not to discuss the whole business of quality and they tended to focus on buildings and money, to one where we encourage all college governors to have a quality committee, where they can receive constant reports. There is a plan, if you like, and what we have also insisted on is that colleges following an inspection have an action plan. We have been able to support that from the standards fund and we have required them to work with good colleges who know how to do this sort of thing. There are a range of reasons and they range from the mix of subjects, we have one or two cases like that, to where you have small adult colleges with a large number of adult part-time students where we know retention tends to be an issue, to colleges that have a large number of students taking basic skills and English as a second language course, where taking the exam is not seen by the individual as a major measure of achievement. It is often felt to be a detriment in being seen to pass an exam in basic skills, particularly when your employer may become aware of it.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I think we need to remind ourselves sometimes that here we are talking about a sector which we hope is going to provide learning opportunities for some of the people who have not done well in the system up until that point and, therefore, there is a greater risk that they will not achieve and that some of them will drop out. That is not complacency. What we do need to be careful of is that we do not send a message to colleges that they should avoid taking some of the more difficult students, because it might adversely affect their targets. Finally, we do always need to remember that 80 per cent of these students are mature students and, as Professor Melville was saying, sometimes life does get in the way. Some people do not want to do the qualification, they want to do the training, they want to improve their learning, but they really do not want to sit an exam. We try and encourage them to do that, although there are some people who will duck out at that point.

  25. I take that point. If that is a significant factor you would not expect the differentiation between the best and the worst, that ought to apply across the whole sector?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I accept that the variation is too great. You also raise the issue about specialist colleges. It is particularly difficult with a small, specialist college. When you have a larger college, as in any organisation, you have some swings and roundabouts and your strong performers, to some extent, will disguise your weak performers, at least for a time, while hopefully you will bring them up to a level. If you have a small, specialist college going through difficulty the performance will be very clearly poor and I think some of the lower performing colleges will fall into that category.

  26. Also some of the better performing colleges are the specialist colleges. It is the variation that I do not fully understand.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) In a specialist college you can have that variation more easily, it is more likely that you will have that variation than in a large generalist college.
  (Professor David Melville) Perhaps I can just illustrate the point, generally the comment is that specialist colleges do well, the ones we would be more familiar with, the agriculture colleges are generally up at the top, and the art and design colleges. The specialist colleges at the bottom tend to be adult specialist colleges, what we call the specialist institutions that have a particular mission to deal precisely with those difficult students and, in fact, their cohorts are dominated by such students. One has to say they are generally doing a good job and we are seeing improvements in what they are doing.

  27. You were saying that the colleges learned from each other, I am delighted to hear that. You told them to talk to other colleges who are doing better and get some ideas, do you power them up or are they given specific colleges to talk to?
  (Professor David Melville) What we attempted to do is draw attention to colleges that have weaknesses in particular areas and also when we fund a college that has been accredited or are a beacon college we agree to fund their dissemination in a particular area, it may be in basic skills, it may be in good practice in retention. We would help the colleges to get in touch with those colleges and publish what is going on, and so on.

  28. I want to look for a moment at the reasons the students give and the colleges give. There are some interesting differences in paragraphs 2.7, 2.8 and 2.9 and in Figure 7 it shows that most of the reasons recorded by the colleges for students withdrawing are to do with funds, and yet paragraph 2.8 makes it clear that 42 per cent of the students who left earlier complained that the course was not as expected. I cannot see in Figure 7 anything very much to do with the course was not as expected, unless that comes under "course related", which is the fifth of the reasons give in Figure 7 and does not amount to more than 10 per cent, which is far from 42 per cent. There is a clear difference from what the colleges are saying and what the responsible college unit found.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I do not think that is at all surprising, the reality is that we still do not know enough about why people do drop out or not complete their qualification. It is not surprising because if you were talking to somebody from the college they are likely to avoid saying that it is because of something which is the fault of the college.

  29. What you are saying is the employment job figures in Figure 7 and, indeed, the whole of Figure 7, are fairly meaningless because it is what the colleges are saying, and you are saying what the colleges are saying is, it is inadequate data because it is drawn up from an inadequate source.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I do not think I did say that. I said we still do not know enough about why people do drop out, but it would not be surprising if when they were speaking to somebody from a college they gave reasons that did not appear to be a direct attack on the college. One of the things that the Learning Skills Council will be wanting to do is to find out more by having independent exit surveys to find out why people do leave and provide them with an opportunity to speak frankly about why they drop out.

  30. Do you regard it as realistic that the real reasons why students left in 42 per cent of cases was because the course was not as expected, and in 38 per cent of the cases it was because they were unhappy with the teaching. Are those real reasons or are the students fooling you in saying that?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I have said a couple of times already that I do not think we actually know. I think that a number of people do leave because the course is not what they expected and I think a number of people do leave because they are unhappy with the teaching. That is why we are spending so much money to try and improve the quality of the teaching. That is why we are putting an emphasis on ensuring that students get good advice at the start, they get good information and good induction and they are helped in those early months in particular to ensure they stay with the course. Whatever the precise percentages we believe that these reasons are important reasons and we need to do something about it.

  31. What you seem to be saying is that you believe Paragraph 2.8 rather than Figure 7, which I accept you are right to do because it seems to me Figure 7 probably shows some pretty odd data which is unreliable.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I have learned that it is always better to be pessimistic and therefore respond to the most pessimistic conclusion.
  (Professor Melville) These are two different surveys in which different questions were asked so a different range of reasons were offered. Generally they are tick boxes and so one would tend to get different answers. The reality is that students leave for a variety of reasons. It is often a number of things building up which might include personal circumstances as well as the teaching and the possibility a job might be coming along.

  32. Indeed, it is often more than one reason. Can I ask therefore whether you are giving colleges advice that they should not just look for one reason? In Paragraph 2.17 it says that 60 per cent of college information systems permit only one reason to be recorded.
  (Professor Melville) One of the real values of this Report is that it enables us to start to put a very strong focus on how we improve retention, how we narrow that gap. I hope that the Learning and Skills Council, which has a very specific remit in this area, will have as much focus on retention as we have had on achievement over the past few years and therefore offer advice on appropriate questionnaires and collecting data and commissioning research which I think is also going to be important in this area because we do not understand, as Sir Michael Bichard has said, precisely why students leave their courses.

  33. Can I finally put to you two other what I regard as potentially significant reasons for particularly adult students in rural areas giving up on their courses, these two are not mentioned here. One is the business of adult courses going on in the evenings, often between seven and nine just at the sort of time when a lot of people might be expecting to have an evening meal, and they go along to colleges where very often there is not any refreshment provision provided for them so they find it very difficult to have an evening meal and have to put it off or have it beforehand. And a second point is particularly in rural areas there is often a huge lack of transport especially in the evenings and somebody who is living in a village without their own car may find is totally impossible to get into the local college to carry out a course. How significant do you think those two are and what are you doing about it?
  (Professor Melville) I think you have hit on something which is extremely important. It is about an overall shift of how colleges view their students. The best colleges think of what is convenient for their students, putting on programmes at the time and the place they want, not expecting them to come from rural areas into local towns but presenting courses in local pubs, in community centres, and so on. That is number one. Secondly, if you like, being more conscious of the demand side rather than the supply side. We have established in our last few months what we call a demand side group and that is about to report with some recommendations for the future to help to make colleges more responsive to students so we do not have the kind of situation that you describe. I think it is very important and I do not believe we can achieve what we are planning to achieve in lifelong learning without that shift on the part of all colleges.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) However much colleges do respond by changing their time-tabling, and some of them have done and many of them probably need to do, I think transport still will remain an issue. It does not matter when you have the lecture, although there are some more convenient times than others, there are still problems with transport in certain areas around the country. We are doing some research on that at the moment. It is one of the reasons why we have increased Access funding up to £103 million, and 10 per cent of students now have access to that money and some of it is going on supporting them with transport costs.

  Chairman: Nigel Griffiths?

Mr Griffiths

  34. Good afternoon. I am interested to hear that some colleges could do more to get prospective students on the right courses and ensure that the college experience matches the students' expectations by providing better pre-enrolment information. I would have thought this was so critical if it was not harmonised then at least the standards should be. What is the problem here?
  (Professor Melville) Let me say, first of all, that it is something that we have regarded right from the start as being important and one of the things that was introduced in the way colleges were funded was what we call entry units in the funding system, so it was recognised that there are up-front costs in recruiting students and giving them advice and that has been built into the system. The second is it has been part of inspection and the Inspectorate has reported on good practice in those areas. The answer to your question of whether everybody does it is, as with all things, we find some colleges are much better at it than others. When we look at inspection grades as a whole, the broad area of support for students is one that tends to produce the best grades. We have seen great progress in this whole business of advice and support. The Report quite rightly highlights that we need to be reminded about this and I think that the changes that are in place are going to help. First of all, we have the Connexions Service which will be providing that kind of independent advice and support for students from the age of 14. Secondly, we are moving to putting the whole range of programmes on a similar footing from the academic programmes, to the vocational programmes, to modern apprenticeships and work-based programmes. The aim is that there is even, appropriate advice so that students are able to make the right choice having the information available to them.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) It is not just the information, it is the advice and support. It is quite possible to provide a lot of information, indeed too much information, and that confuses a lot of students. That is why the Connexions Service is so important. It is why the investment we are making in pastoral support is so important. We need to get people to get alongside students who are making difficult decisions to help them through what is inevitably going to be a maze of information.

  35. Professor Melville mentioned the Connexions Service that is due to start in about three weeks' time. Are you on track to get it off to a flying start?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) It is due to start in a number of parts of the country in three weeks' time. We have got 13 pilots in place already so it is going to be some time before that is across the whole of the country. Yes, we are on target for that. I visited one or two of the pilots recently and I think they are extremely impressive. We are seeing the Careers Service and Youth Service working together in a way they have never done before to provide real support, not just learning support but support for some of the young people we want to get into learning, so I am very optimistic about the Connexions Service.

  36. Have the pilots been looking at issues like "buddy" schemes?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) The pilots have and the colleges have as well.

  37. Reaching favourable conclusions?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) It is still very early days for anything connected with the Connexions Service but some colleges have been involved sufficiently long now in buddy schemes and support schemes to know they can have a real impact and to show that they have a real impact.

  38. What is the mechanism for disseminating that sort of good practice by your Department and by you?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) One of the ways of disseminating good practice is through the Learning and Skills Development Agency whose task it is to try and ensure that good practice across the whole of the system is consistently applied. There are schemes like the regional quality assurance scheme which ensures that good practice is applied. The Learning and Skills Council will have a very important role. The inspection process is another weapon in the armoury. The 112 inspections of colleges last year published on the web site is information about good practice available for everyone to see. So there are a lot of opportunities now, benchmarking data which we now have available in a form we have never had before, a lot of opportunities for colleges if they want to learn about good practice to find out about it.

  39. And if they do not want to learn?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) If they do not want to learn I think there are sufficient pressures now in place in the system—the reviews I talked about that the Learning and Skills Council will be carrying out, the benchmarking data, the inspection process that is now rigorous, the new inspection process we are introducing. There are enough pressures in the system to be able to identify colleges that are not performing well.

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