The Committee of Public Accounts has agreed
to the following Report:
HOW ENGLISH FURTHER EDUCATION COLLEGES
CAN IMPROVE STUDENT PERFORMANCE
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.
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
|Target for December
|19-year olds with "Level 2" (5 GCSEs at A*-C, an NVQ level 2, intermediate GNVQ or equivalent)
|21-year olds with "Level 3" (2 A-levels, an NVQ level 3, an Advanced GNVQ or the equivalent)
|Adults with "Level 3" (as above)
|Adults with "Level 4" (NVQ level 4, i.e. having a degree or a higher level vocational qualification)
|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 Employmentnow 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. 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
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
(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).
(a) Overall performance of the Further Education
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.
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.
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.
(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.
The Comptroller and Auditor General drew attention to a wide range
of recent initiatives by the Department and the Funding Council
(Figure 2). 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.
Figure 2: Recent initiatives by the Department and the Funding Council for improving student retention and achievement
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 2000to 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 16to 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
outstandingbut 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.
11. Many students leave their courses or fail to
achieve their qualification aims because the courses are not what
they expected. 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Rother Valley College
South Thames 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
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
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.
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
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.
(d) Role of the Learning and Skills Council
20. The new Learning and Skills Councilcreated from April
2001took 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.
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 outstandingbut 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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
C&AG's Report, Improving Student Performance (HC 276,
Session 2000-2001) Back
C&AG's Report, paras 4 and 7; Q15 Back
Qs 16, 62, 67 Back
Qs 3-4 Back
C&AG's Report, para 1.4 Back
ibid, para 1.5 and Figure 3 Back
Qs 2, 35-37, 61-62, 72-73 Back
C&AG's Report, paras 14-15 and Part 5; Qs 6-11, 13-14, 16,
45-54, 59-62 Back
C&AG's Report, paras 10-11 and Part 3; Q30 Back
C&AG's Report, Part 4; Qs 34, 48, 63, 69, 74-76 Back
Qs 2, 12, 33-37, 61, 85-86, 89 Back
Qs 12, 48, 61-68 Back
Qs 16, 27, 38-40, 48 Back
C&AG's Report, para 2.22 and Figure 10; Qs 16, 21-24, 77-84 Back
Qs 41-44; C&AG's Report, paras 16-19 Back
Qs 28-32, 42-44 Back
C&AG's Report, paras 6.5-6.10; Qs 99-105 Back
Qs 17-20; Ev, Appendix 1, p21 Back
Q5; Ev, Appendix 2, pp 21-22 Back
Qs 106-107 Back
Qs 107, 113 Back