Select Committee on Public Accounts Fifteenth Report


FIFTEENTH REPORT


The Committee of Public Accounts has agreed to the following Report:

HOW ENGLISH FURTHER EDUCATION COLLEGES CAN IMPROVE STUDENT PERFORMANCE

INTRODUCTION AND LIST OF CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

1. The further education sector provides a wide range of education and training opportunities for people from school leaving-age upwards. There are over 400 further education colleges in England, which enable 3.8 million students to study for some 17,000 different qualifications from about 480 awarding bodies.[1]

2. The further education sector is a crucial part of the Government's overall strategy to combat social exclusion, unemployment and skill shortages. The sector delivers 54 per cent of all vocational qualifications acquired each year, and is thus one of the principal contributors to achieving the Government's National Learning Targets (Figure 1).


Figure 1: National Learning Targets for young people and adults

Position when targets were launched in 1998
Position in Autumn

1999
Target for December

2002
19-year olds with "Level 2" (5 GCSEs at A*-C, an NVQ level 2, intermediate GNVQ or equivalent)
73.9%
74.9%
85%
21-year olds with "Level 3" (2 A-levels, an NVQ level 3, an Advanced GNVQ or the equivalent)
52.2%
53.2%
60%
Adults with "Level 3" (as above)
45.1%
46.2%
50%
Adults with "Level 4" (NVQ level 4, i.e. having a degree or a higher level vocational qualification)
26.1%
26.6%
28%
Learning participation target —reduction in non-learners
26% of population not in learning
Data not yet available
24% of population not in learning
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

Source: Department for Education and Employment

3. On the basis of a Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, our predecessor Committee examined the Department for Education and Employment—now the Department for Education and Skills—(the Department) and the Further Education Funding Council (the Funding Council) about scope to improve the performance of students.[2] The Committee also took the opportunity to ask Sir Michael Bichard, the Accounting Officer of the Department and Professor David Melville, Chief Executive of the Funding Council, some wider questions about progress in the education sector under their stewardship, as they were due to leave their posts on 18 May 2001 and 31 March 2001 respectively. The responsibilities of the Funding Council were transferred to the Learning and Skills Council on 1 April 2001.

4. In the light of our predecessors' examination, the Committee draws two overall conclusions:

  • The further education sector has a vital role to play in improving the competitiveness of the United Kingdom by developing and widening the skills of our people. Improvements have been made: for example over the past five years, the further education sector has raised participation by 70 per cent, from 1.36 million to 2.35 million students, whilst maintaining student retention and increasing student achievement. The government has made available new investment to raise standards. But the sector must deliver significant improvements in performance if the National Learning Targets are to be met, by building on the innovation and good work already done in many colleges.
  • Although further education has a key part to play in meeting the National Learning Targets, there are no specific targets for the sector, which makes it difficult to track progress and assess the sector's performance. The Learning and Skills Council needs to develop targets for further education colleges and other providers.

5. Our more specific conclusions and recommendations are as follows:

  (i)  The Government has invested £725 million over the past 2 years, linked to raising standards and improving retention and achievement. It has launched a wide range of initiatives to secure improvements, but it is too soon to say whether these have been successful. The Department and the Learning and Skills Council should evaluate the success of these initiatives so that they can identify the most effective ways of helping students to complete their studies successfully (paragraph 21);

  (ii)  Of the lessons observed by the Funding Council's Inspectorate in 2000, 62 per cent were good or outstanding - but 38 per cent were, by that token, only satisfactory or worse. The Department and the Funding Council are taking steps to improve the qualifications and quality of teachers and the rewards for high-calibre people, with special emphasis on part-time teachers through the Standards Fund. They need to monitor progress closely (paragraph 22);

  (iii)  Many students leave their courses or fail to achieve their qualification aims because the courses are not what they expected. They may find their course more difficult than they anticipated, covering a different curriculum, or with a different mix of theory and practical components. This loss makes it important to get people onto the right course and support them throughout their studies. There are many examples of good practice, which should be adopted by colleges more widely (paragraph 23);

  (iv)  The steps already taken to encourage benchmarking and disseminate good practice (through the Learning and Skills Development Agency, the Standards Fund, the accredited college scheme and the Beacon college scheme) are crucial. The best colleges have already improved their data on student performance. But the Learning and Skills Council needs to encourage and develop more consistent, better and more timely information on why students leave further education, their performance and destinations at college and national levels, to aid benchmarking and the identification and dissemination of successful practice (paragraph 24);

  (v)  In addition, the Committee supports the notion of a student tracking system that will allow colleges to monitor the progress of individuals through their education, and the development of systems that measure the "value added" by education and the "distance travelled" by individual students (paragraph 25);

  (vi)  In his wider comments on the education system, Sir Michael Bichard drew attention to the progress made in primary schools, particularly in literacy and numeracy, as well as in further education and vocational qualifications. However, he saw the need for further improvement in secondary education, and for stretching targets overall to ensure that the United Kingdom kept pace with, and improved its position in relation to, its competitors. These are issues to which we intend to return in the next few years (paragraph 30).

HOW ENGLISH FURTHER EDUCATION COLLEGES CAN IMPROVE STUDENT PERFORMANCE

(a) Overall performance of the Further Education Sector

6. Over the past five years, the further education sector has increased student numbers by 70 per cent, from 1.36 million to 2.35 million students. In 1998-99, the overall success rate of students in further education - the proportion of qualification aims embarked upon that are successfully achieved - was 56 per cent for 16-18 year olds and 51 per cent for older students. Achievement rates in obtaining qualifications have improved (from 65 per cent in 1994-95 to 74 per cent in 1998-99), whilst overall retention rates remained steady. However, retention rates in general and sixth form colleges for full-time students vary between 98 per cent and 72 per cent. The variation in achievement rates is much greater, between 98 per cent and 33 per cent.[3]

7. Despite the overall improvement, the Department accepted that the sector's performance was not good enough and that the variations between colleges were unacceptable. They had been seriously concerned about the sector over the last ten years, but were getting to grips with the problem and were not prepared to accept poor teaching quality or provision in any college.[4] Further improvements in achievement and success rates were essential, if the sector was to help meet the Government's National Learning Targets for 2002 (Figure 2).

8. The Department were confident of achieving most of the targets. Those for increasing the number of 19 year olds with qualifications at Level 2 and the number of 21 year olds at level 3 were, however, stretching, despite improvements in the past four years.[5]

(b) Improving college performance

9. In 1999-00 and 2000-01, the Government invested an extra £725 million in further education, linked to raising standards and improving retention and achievement.[6] The Comptroller and Auditor General drew attention to a wide range of recent initiatives by the Department and the Funding Council (Figure 2).[7] The Department said that progress was being made across the range. Improvements from initiatives such as the Standards Fund, the Beacon college scheme and student support should be visible within 18 months. Others, for example the Connexions Service and the support to students in making decisions on what courses to go on, should produce results more quickly.[8]

Figure 2: Recent initiatives by the Department and the Funding Council for improving student retention and achievement

Initiative

Details

Research (1996 - present)

The Learning and Skills Development Agency, formerly the Further Education Development Agency (FEDA), undertakes research broadly agreed with the Funding Council. Work includes reports on improving retention (1997), raising achievement (2000) and achievement at colleges with high "widening participation factors" (due 2001).

Performance indicators (February 1997 - present)

At the request of the Department the Funding Council first published indicators for student retention and achievement for individual colleges for the academic year 1994-95. Subsequent data have been published annually, normally in September.

Quality Improvement Strategy (June 1998 - present)

The Funding Council's strategy covers a number of aspects, including:

annual retention and achievement targets for colleges from 1998-99;

publication of benchmarking data for the first time in August 1998 for 1995-96 and 1996-97. Data are also available on the Funding Council's website by college type, qualification type and programme area, as well as national data for individual qualifications; and

greater emphasis on retention and achievement in the current cycle of four-yearly inspections of colleges.


Access Funds(April 1993 - present)

Provided by the Department and allocated by the Funding Council to colleges to support students whose financial needs could prevent their participation or achievement in further education. From 1999-2000 the funds were extended to cover increased child-care support and between 1998-99 and 2000-01 £152 million will be allocated.

Standards Fund(April 1999 - present)

Distributed by the Funding Council to provide: targeted support for colleges causing concern or judged in need of additional support; post-inspection support for all colleges; training for governors, principals and teachers; and dissemination of good practice. Since 1999 all colleges have benefitted, and by 2001-02 £275 million will have been made available to colleges.

College accreditation (April 1999 - present)

To acquire accredited status colleges must demonstrate achievement of high standards across the range of their activity. Since 1999, 41 colleges have been accredited. The Funding Council has made Standards Fund money available to help these colleges disseminate good practice.

Beacon colleges (May 1999 - present)

The Department initially awarded 10 colleges Beacon status. A further 5 colleges were designated as Beacons in February 2000. The Funding Council allocates Standards Fund money to help them disseminate good practice.

Education Maintenance Allowance (September 1999 -present)

A pilot scheme to encourage more 16-19 year olds from low-income families to stay on and achieve in learning beyond 16. Payment of a weekly allowance is dependent on attendance, with bonuses payable at the end of term and on successful completion of the course. Pilots in 15 areas were extended in September 2000 to 41 additional areas.

New inspections (October 1999-present)

The Government introduced new style area-wide inspections to ensure that all students, including those from inner cities, have access to high quality learning.

Connexions Service (April 2001)

A new youth support strategy for all 13-19 year olds to be phased in from April 2001 - with pilots from April 2000—to help meet the National Learning Target for 19-year-olds.

Connexions Card(Autumn 2001)

Announced by the Government in September 1999 as an incentive for 16—to 19-year-olds to remain in learning. The Card will carry entitlement to free or reduced-cost travel and leisure activities and to commercial discounts. Young people will be rewarded for participation in learning with opportunities to undertake activities of interest. It will also direct young people to a website containing information on the range of learning options. Demonstration and Pathfinder projects are underway.

Source: C&AG's Report (HC 276, Session 2000-2001), page 9, Figure 3

10. The quality of teaching, management and leadership within colleges has a huge impact upon achievement and retention. The Funding Council's Inspectorate carried out 112 inspections in 2000. Of the lessons observed, 62 per cent were good or outstanding—but 38 per cent were only satisfactory or worse. The Department and the Funding Council were introducing mandatory qualifications for teachers and raising the status of the profession. They had introduced specific programmes in the Standards Fund for part-time teachers. They were strengthening the inspection and audit arrangements. They were also looking at new pay arrangements that would reward high-calibre teachers and keep them in the further education sector, while rooting out those that were not good enough.[9]

11. Many students leave their courses or fail to achieve their qualification aims because the courses are not what they expected.[10] The Funding Council assured our predecessors that college funding did not provide incentives to colleges to recruit students they could not retain. Equally it was important not to dissuade colleges from taking people who had fared less well in education in the past, just because it might affect their performance targets. It was therefore all the more important to get people onto the right course and support them throughout their studies. This was an area where great progress had been made, and where there were many examples of good practice.[11]

12. Further improvements would flow from the Connexions Service, which will provide independent advice and support for students from age 14. The Funding Council had also provided improved financial support through child care schemes, where they were spending £25 million in 2000-01: colleges were receiving between £30,000 and £90,000 each, most had crèches and individuals were receiving something like £1,300 a year in child care support. In addition, students received support through Access Funds, including help with transport costs in rural areas, Education Maintenance Allowances, and better information about the financial support available.[12]

13. Those initiatives would also support the drive to improve the performance of students who enter further education under widening participation initiatives. The 70 per cent increase in participation had arisen partly as a result of Education Maintenance Allowances, which were reaching 60,000 young people. The fact that retention had been maintained at about 85 per cent and achievement had improved, demonstrated how further education was succeeding with a number of people who had failed in the system before. The task was to continue to draw these people into learning, and to provide them with support to ensure that they continued to learn and become more motivated.[13]

14. The Department and the Funding Council outlined the many opportunities for colleges to disseminate good practice, and identified this as the key aspect of improving performance and addressing variations. One of the Learning and Skills Development Agency's tasks is to try to ensure that good practice is consistently applied across the whole of the system; for example, through the raising quality and achievement programme. There are also initiatives such as the Standards Fund, the accredited college scheme and the Beacon college scheme. The Funding Council, for example, give accredited or Beacon colleges £50,000 each to disseminate good practice in a particular area, for example on basic skills and retention.[14]

15. In addition, the Funding Council had focused particular attention on the poorest performing colleges: those where achievement was below 50 per cent. The Comptroller and Auditor General's Report noted that the number of colleges in this category had fallen from 61 in 1995-96 to 10 in 1998-99, and four of these 10 colleges had merged since then (Figure 3). One of the Council's policies has been to encourage mergers where there were quality problems alongside financial problems. Where mergers had occurred, there were plans to improve performance on financial management and quality, and they usually provided support through the Standards Fund for a specific action plan, which was then monitored. They were also working very closely with the remaining colleges in order to improve their performance.[15]

Figure 3

College

Mergers

Barnsley

-

Durham College of Agriculture and Horticulture

Merged with East Durham Community College to form East Durham and Houghall College

East Surrey College

-

Kirkley Hall College of Agriculture

Merged with Northumberland College and is known as Northumberland College

Morley College

-

Rother Valley College

-

South Thames College

-

Woolwich College

Merged with Greenwich Community College and is known as Greenwich Community College

The Working Men's College

-

York Sixth Form College

Merged with York College of Further and Higher Education to form York College

(c) Improving the quality and timeliness of information on student performance

16. Colleges assess the performance of students by monitoring their attendance and progress on assignments. The Funding Council, in turn, assess colleges' retention, achievement and student destination data. This data also helps colleges benchmark their performance against others. The best colleges had already improved their data on student performance, but in his report, the Comptroller and Auditor General saw the need for some colleges to improve the information they collect and their monitoring. The Learning and Skills Council should also speed up the production of sector-wide information on performance, if necessary on a partial basis, to help benchmarking and the identification and dissemination of successful practice.[16]

17. The Department and the Funding Council accepted that they did not know enough about the reasons why people drop out of college or fail to complete their qualification. The new Learning and Skills Council would be seeking to find out more by having independent exit surveys. The Department were meanwhile discussing with the Information Commissioner the introduction of a student tracking system, so that they could follow the progress of students from college to college and course to course, and report their progress. And the Learning and Skills Council would be looking at ways of speeding up the production of overall sector data.[17]

18. The Comptroller and Auditor General also identified scope to improve the measurement of student performance, by the use of measures of "value added" and "distance travelled", which compared student attainment at the commencement of programmes and at the end. Such systems could be used to monitor the progress of individual students and college performance. He identified two information technology-based approaches in common use at colleges (Figure 4). The Department confirmed that this was a very important area because there was a need to recognise and celebrate the good provision going on in colleges that are dealing with some of the most disadvantaged people. Introducing such systems was not easy, especially moving from traditional programmes into vocational studies, but they were looking at various systems and consulting on whether a post-16 value added system could be introduced more widely.[18]

Figure 4: Value added systems

There are two value added applications in the A-level curriculum:

ALIS (A-Level Information System): Based at the University of Durham, this receives data from several hundred colleges and schools and compares A-level grades with average GCSE grades, which are subsequently weighted for different subjects. The advantages of ALIS are that it is based on a large sample, on work that has been taking place over a number of years and it addresses directly the issue of subject difficulty.

ALPS (A-Level Performance System): Developed by Greenhead College, ALPS is based on an analysis of a college's own data to establish a baseline position and then, by a process of incremental improvements, to improve on the baseline position. To derive useable statistics from a much smaller data set, ALPS treats A-levels as being of equal difficulty and usually calculates average GCSE scores more simply than the calculation that underpins ALIS. The advantages of ALPS are that a college remains in control of its own data and there is no subscription fee, as there is with ALIS. A disadvantage is that it deals with fewer variables.

Source: C&AG's Report (HC 276 Session 2000-2001), page 30, Figure 13

19. Our predecessors asked whether the provision of better equipment was important in improving college performance. The Department said that it was, particularly Information and Communications Technology equipment. Since 1997, the Funding Council had reintroduced a capital loan scheme. Funding in 1999-00 and 2000-01 exceeded £120 million to support property schemes and, as a result of gearing, had led to capital investment of about £1 billion in the sector. On top of that they had an overall programme of investment in information technology, where funding of £32 million had been provided over the same period.[19]

(d) Role of the Learning and Skills Council

20. The new Learning and Skills Council—created from April 2001—took over responsibility for the further education sector from the Further Education Funding Council. They also assumed responsibility for monitoring the 5000 or so bodies responsible for adult and community learning and the funding of work-based training for young people. That responsibility includes, from 2001-2002 responsibility for sixth formers in schools. In view of the difficulties faced by the Further Education Funding Council in monitoring the further education sector alone, our predecessors sought assurance that the Learning and Skills Council would be able to assure themselves about the quality of education and performance across this much larger sector. The Department were very confident that the Learning and Skills Council would be able to apply rigorous reviews at local level. They would also be able to compare the value for money of "A"-levels and equivalent qualifications in schools and further education colleges.[20]

Conclusions

21. The Government has invested £725 million over the past 2 years, linked to raising standards and improving retention and achievement. It has launched a wide range of initiatives to secure improvements, but it is too soon to say whether these have been successful. The Department and the Learning and Skills Council should evaluate the success of these initiatives so that they can identify the most effective ways of helping students to complete their studies successfully.

22. Of the lessons observed by the Funding Council's Inspectorate in 2000, 62 per cent were good or outstanding—but 38 per cent were, by that token, only satisfactory or worse. The Department and the Funding Council are taking steps to improve the qualifications and quality of teachers and the rewards for high-calibre people, with special emphasis on part-time teachers through the Standards Fund. They need to monitor progress closely.

23. Many students leave their courses or fail to achieve their qualification aims because the courses are not what they expected. They may find their course more difficult than they anticipated, covering a different curriculum, or with a different mix of theory and practical components. This loss makes it important to get people onto the right course and support them throughout their studies. There are many examples of good practice, which should be adopted by colleges more widely.

24. The steps already taken to encourage benchmarking and disseminate good practice (through the Learning and Skills Development Agency, the Standards Fund, the accredited college scheme and the Beacon college scheme) are crucial. The best colleges have already improved their data on student performance. But the Learning and Skills Council needs to encourage and develop more consistent, better and more timely information on why students leave further education, their performance and destinations at college and national levels, to aid benchmarking and the identification and dissemination of successful practice.

25. In addition, the Committee supports the notion of a student tracking system that will allow colleges to monitor the progress of individuals through their education, and the development of systems that measure the "value added" by education and the "distance travelled" by individual students.

PROGRESS MADE IN EDUCATION DURING THE STEWARDSHIP OF SIR MICHAEL BICHARD AND PROFESSOR DAVID MELVILLE

26. Sir Michael Bichard was due to leave his post as Accounting Officer at the Department for Education and Employment and Professor David Melville was also due to leave the Further Education Funding Council when it was replaced by the Learning and Skills Council. Our predecessors therefore asked them about the progress made during their periods of stewardship and the challenges ahead.

27. On education, Sir Michael said that there had been important improvements, particularly in literacy and numeracy in primary schools where independent tests were showing that there had probably been the first real improvement since the war. This should mean that 11-year olds were in a better position to take advantage of secondary education. Children tended, however, to slip back in secondary schools between 11 and 14 and the Department needed to improve the quality of provision in all secondary schools. The Department had issued an education paper on how to deliver excellence in secondary schools and a more diverse system focused on the individual. Sir Michael also saw significant improvements in further education and the quality of vocational qualifications. But competitors in other countries were moving pretty quickly too; hence the need for stretching targets.[21]

28. Professor Melville added that the performance of and knowledge about further education had improved significantly, and one of the most satisfying achievements was that nearly a million more people each year benefited from further education than did so in 1993. That had been good for individuals in terms of an inclusive society and for the country although we were still poor relative to other countries at the intermediate level, between schools and higher education. The progress made had put the country in a better position to move forward and tackle some intractable issues, such as the basic skills of literacy and numeracy, which affected some 7 million people.[22]

29. More widely, Sir Michael saw scope for the public sector further to improve delivery of core services by securing improvements in the way policy was developed and implemented. It needed to be well researched, involving more outsiders in the process and at an earlier stage. It should be well presented and communicated. There was a need for better business planning, risk management and project management skills within government to ensure delivery. And those evaluating performance needed to include more people with experience in operational delivery and management.[23]

Conclusion

30. In his wider comments on the education system, Sir Michael Bichard drew attention to the progress made in primary schools, particularly in literacy and numeracy, as well as in further education and vocational qualifications. However, he saw the need for further improvement in secondary education, and for stretching targets overall to ensure that the United Kingdom kept pace with, and improved its position in relation to, its competitors. These are issues to which we plan to return in the next few years.

1   C&AG's Report (HC 276, Session 2000-2001), paras 1-2 and 1.1 Back

2   C&AG's Report, Improving Student Performance (HC 276, Session 2000-2001) Back

3   C&AG's Report, paras 4 and 7; Q15 Back

4   Qs 16, 62, 67 Back

5   Qs 3-4 Back

6   C&AG's Report, para 1.4 Back

7   ibid, para 1.5 and Figure 3 Back

8   Qs 2, 35-37, 61-62, 72-73 Back

9   C&AG's Report, paras 14-15 and Part 5; Qs 6-11, 13-14, 16, 45-54, 59-62 Back

10   C&AG's Report, paras 10-11 and Part 3; Q30 Back

11   C&AG's Report, Part 4; Qs 34, 48, 63, 69, 74-76 Back

12   Qs 2, 12, 33-37, 61, 85-86, 89 Back

13   Qs 12, 48, 61-68 Back

14   Qs 16, 27, 38-40, 48 Back

15   C&AG's Report, para 2.22 and Figure 10; Qs 16, 21-24, 77-84 Back

16   Qs 41-44; C&AG's Report, paras 16-19 Back

17   Qs 28-32, 42-44 Back

18   C&AG's Report, paras 6.5-6.10; Qs 99-105 Back

19   Qs 17-20; Ev, Appendix 1, p21 Back

20   Q5; Ev, Appendix 2, pp 21-22 Back

21   Qs 106-107 Back

22   Q108 Back

23   Qs 107, 113 Back


 
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