Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-99)



  80. Which colleges now are below 50 per cent?
  (Professor David Melville) We do not have any more recent data which is published, it was updated for this Report.

  81. Tell me will colleges they were?
  (Professor David Melville) The 10?

  82. Which ever colleges you have available?
  (Professor David Melville) Barnsley College, Durham College of Agriculture and Horticulture, East Surrey College, Kirkley Hall, which is also an agricultural college, Morley College, Rother Valley College, South Thames, Woolwich, the Working Men's College and York Sixth Form College. Of those, four, that is the Durham College of Agriculture, the Kirkley Hall College of Agriculture, Woolwich and York Sixth Form College, have now merged with other colleges and they do not actually exist now. That is how it went from 10 to six. I happen to know the figure, from a recent inspection, for South Thames College and they have moved to over 60 per cent.

  83. Where mergers have taken place how far are you sure the mergers are not just concealing a continuation of the same low quality of delivery, with the statistics submerged in the higher performance of the colleges they have merged with? What evidence is there that the colleges which were deficient have improved their performance?
  (Professor David Melville) I think, firstly, in considering a merger we go through a very rigorous process in which we require the merged college or the colleges coming together to produce a plan which includes their financial performance, but also their quality performance. Where there is a deficit, it is not in all cases, of course, then we require them to ensure that there is improvement. We usually provide them with Standards Fund support for a specific action plan. Obviously in the overall process then merged colleges are included in that. There is no question that that gets submerged.

  84. Are they then subject to a tighter monitoring system so that you can ensure that one college does not drag the other college down?
  (Professor David Melville) We would normally require, following the merger, colleges to have a specific post-merger plan. We have a unit within the Funding Council that monitors what is going on following a merger against that plan on an on-going basis.

  85. If we go to the original Report at page 12 and 13. If you look at Table 7, this is the one that shows students withdrawing. The interesting thing is that in the case of the sixth form colleges and in the case of the general FE colleges the finance factor is the second highest cause for losing students in both cases. Yet, over the page, in paragraph 2.17 it says, "A survey of 1,000 students found that 23 per cent had considered leaving for financial reasons. Over a third thought that financial difficulties had negatively affected their academic performance". Then it says, "Two thirds of students had received no information about financial support, and about half of the students were unaware of the sources of support". That seems a sad situation, does it not, the youngsters who are most in need of financial support and are actually dropping out of college early seem not to have been informed, how on earth did that happen?
  (Professor David Melville) I think this is a particularly useful piece of work and I think Professor Callender is following it up with further work, which is one of the most enlightening parts. The conclusion is that as we look at the information the colleges provide, in fact we inspect that kind of information, the majority of colleges do provide that information in some form—

  86. To the student.
  (Professor David Melville)—to students, but students do not hear that information very often, that is the communication is not effective. It is not that it is not done it is simply that generally in this kind of group of students you need to reinforce it. It does reinforce the need for more personal attention rather than simply saying, which I think many of us thought, if we made the step of ensuring for the prospectus that we require it to be there in published information, that is enough. Students simply do not hear it. It parallels what might be described as the whole of the benefit situation, many people do not take-up benefit, many people do not know about it even though there are a number of publicity forms.

  87. Is the Department doing any analysis of this element in the drop out of students?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) We would expect the analysis to be done by FEFC. What the Department is doing is ensuring that colleges and the FEFC has the money available to support students who are experiencing these sorts of problems. I went over earlier some of the things we are doing in Access Funds, a good proportion of which is going to support students who have financial difficulty. Also the work we are doing with the Education Maintenance Allowance, which may only apply in 56 areas at the moment, but which looks very successful and may be rolled out further to try and keep people in the system. There is quite a lot of work going on to support students who are having financial difficulties.

  88. Is there a recognition in the Department at all that support for students may have been cut too drastically?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) Given the increased investment and you heard about the £750 million, we are now talking about an improvement from three billion up to 4.2 billion over four years. Then, I think, you are talking about a very significant investment in the FE sector.

  89. That is a different matter, I am talking about help for students, which is a different thing. As you indicated, or as the Report indicates, a substantial number are from deprived backgrounds. It would seem to me that this should be at least analysed in the context of the abandonment of the old student ranks, and so on, and the various other changes that have taken place.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) A significant part of that initial investment is going into that very area. We have talked about Access Funds, we talked about the Education Maintenance Allowance, we talked about the Connexion Service and the investment in the Connexion Service in every local area is going to be hugely increased from the old Career Service. This is going towards supporting the very students that you are concerned about.

  90. Can we then switch to the other side of the page to page 12. I am interested to hear, and looking at this diagram relating to achievement, that the second part of Figure 6, unless I am misreading the footnote, means there is 75 per cent achievement amongst the students in the range of 70 per cent to 90 per cent of the qualification aim. That seems, very, very high. That is very commendable, I am not knocking it, have I misread it? As I read it about three quarters achieving about 70 per cent of 80 per cent of their qualification aim.
  (Professor David Melville) I think so, yes.

  91. Where I am going on this is, you, Sir Michael, have the responsibility, I see from your CV, for the standards in schools and helping to create a learning society, a fascinating challenge. We have traditional sixth forms running alongside the sixth form colleges. Since you have this responsibility for the learning society, what is the comparison between the amount of support that is provided for a student in a sixth form college and the amount of support that is provided for a pupil in a sixth form school. It may be that this is for you, Professor Melville, it just seemed to me that Sir Michael with his general responsibility would be looking at these comparisons across the schools, whereas you with your Funding Council role would have a more limited perspective. I do not mind who answers it as long as I get an answer to the question.
  (Professor David Melville) Very broadly, we have conducted comparisons over a number of years and generally on a rather specific programme of the three A-level programmes and we have been able to make comparisons. The gap between the two had gone to round about 20 per cent, but it has in fact been narrowed with the introduction of Curriculum 2000. It has approached somewhere between 10 per cent and 15 per cent now.

  92. The sixth form schools have about 10 per cent or 15 per cent more per pupil?
  (Professor David Melville) Doing precisely the same programme.

  93. What does that mean in actual cash terms?
  (Professor David Melville) I would have to take notice of the exact figure, we can provide you with those, very broadly a typical figure is roundabout £3,000 per pupil doing that programme. We are talking about a difference of perhaps £300 or £400[5].

  94. Yes. £300 to £450, that is a lot of money to a college when you multiple it by the number of students.
  (Professor David Melville) One of the important steps that has now been taken in establishing the Learning and Skills Council is that it will be responsible for all sixth formers in schools and in colleges. In the past there have been two funding streams and they have diverged.

  95. Looking at value-for-money, are you satisfied that a switch of resources would not make sense from sixth formers to sixth form colleges, since they seem to have a very high achievement rate at a substantially lower costs for an individual?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) They are different environments and there are some young people who will perform better in a sixth form than they will in a sixth form college and some will perform better in a sixth form college than they will in a sixth form. The overheads are different, you are right, we do need to keep a very close eye on that. One of the reasons for having area reviews and inspections is to look at the whole range of provision in a particular area and see whether it makes sense, whether it is coherent, whether it is providing good value for money, whether there is duplication or whether there are gaps. We are through the area inspection process looking at the very point you are raising.

  96. What about qualitative comparison? I assume a lot of the youngsters in sixth form colleges will be doing courses that might be considered appropriate at school level for sixth formers; is that so?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I do not think that is so. I think there is a very wide range of provision in some sixth form colleges, in some very good sixth forms the options available are quite narrow.

  97. I was in a grammar school and I asked if anyone studied economics and the headmaster did not think economics was an academic subject, he is probably right.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I had the same experience.

  98. There is greater flexibility and flexibility means there is also an option in the early stage if a youngster feels the course is not quite right there is more flexibility of moving around within a college, would that be so?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) It does vary from institution to institution. There are some schools that offer a wide range of choice and some are narrower. I suspect on balance you would say that sixth form colleges do offer a wider range.
  (Professor David Melville) Typically they are much larger institutions, that is your starting premise and as a consequence they are able to offer a wider range of choices. One of things that the area inspections have brought out is precisely that. However, it is important to say that we do need sixth forms spread over a large area of the country. To assume that 100 sixth form colleges can provide for the needs of all 16 to 18 year olds of that type is not realistic. We have 1,800 school sixth formers.

  Mr Williams: I realise it is outside your remit. I have a sixth form college in my own constituency which achieves very, very good figures and I also have some sixth form schools which are also very effective. I was looking at it on a comparative basis. Thank you. That is all.


  99. I have one specific question. In response to a question from Mr Leigh you said that your concern is that there is no deterrent to FE colleges taking on more difficult subjects, as it were. There is a decent chapter in here about value added systems. Is that not a solution to that problem?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) It is a very important point, yes.

5   Note: See Evidence, Appendix 2, page 21 (PAC 00-01/126). Back

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