Mo Dixon

The programme that halved one college’s drop-out rate

The early period of the academic year is all too often a wasteland of potential – a time when college rolls can be decimated by drop-outs. But Mo Dixon’s college has put a support plan in place that has turned things around

The programme that halved a college drop-out rate

Each year, thousands of FE students drop out of college within the first 42 days. And they tend to be the most vulnerable students, such as those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Our college was no different – in 2016, the drop-out rate in the first 42 days was 10 per cent. Despite robust measures already being in place, we knew we had to do more, so we devised a new approach to address the issue: a risk-based, student-centred programme. The 42 Day Project allows the college’s student-support team to react quickly if any students are starting to “wobble”. Here’s how it works.

1. Identification

Once enrolled on their chosen programme of study, all students are red, amber or green (Rag) rated using the Risk of Neet (not in education, employment or training) Indicator tool. Tutors map each student against 14 indicators and we identify whether they are rated as requiring “substantial support”, “additional support” or “no support currently required”.

We aim to identify all risks within the first two weeks of a student starting; however, we continue to monitor risk throughout the student journey.

2. Support analysis

Once we have identified the risks associated with each student, a comprehensive individual package of support is put in place, dependent upon individual need. This support may take many forms and could include a mixture of learning support, sensory support, personal learning-coach mentoring, maths and English support, disability support, counselling, further careers advice and guidance, student funding and welfare support, childcare support, transport or housing advice.

3. Discussion

Students and their personal tutors discuss the risk of Neet indicators and develop an individual learning plan as part of the tutorial process.

4. Tracking and review

Using a bespoke tutorial system, we then regularly track and monitor all targets throughout the remainder of the academic year. Risk of Neet indicators may change as the year progresses, and through the personalised tutorial system we can add or remove support as required.

Rolling the programme out was not without its challenges. Many students often have a complex mixture of Neet indicators and their circumstances change throughout the year. It is important that we continually monitor the indicators and adapt the levels of support accordingly. That requires robust systems and a lot of staff commitment.

The project is quality-assured at several points throughout the year with the Rag rating revisited in tutorial and the impact of student support monitored according to attendance, punctuality, grade profile, value added, behaviour, skill development and ultimately positive onward progression.

As for staff commitment, the curriculum and support staff recognised the value of their contribution to an outstanding student experience, and senior managers provided clear communication and acknowledged the levels of support being provided. Governors were also fully supportive of the project. In short, we all pulled together to make it work.

The impact has been outstanding:

  • Students are supported to participate fully in college life and engage with all aspects of teaching, learning and assessment. The support also allows lecturers to focus on the craft of teaching and learning, knowing that all students are fully equipped to make a positive contribution in all sessions.
  • The programme enables our students to fully participate in any work placement, and our apprentices can develop – and then demonstrate – the skills, knowledge and behaviour required to meet their framework or standard. Positive employer feedback confirms students develop the cultural capital required for the workplace.
  • High-quality support ensures students are fully prepared for the next stage of the journey – this may be to employment, further study or an apprenticeship programme.
  • For some of our lower-level students, the support ensures they develop skills such as problem solving, time management and working with others – necessary skills that allow them to make a positive contribution to their family, community or the wider society. It also ensures they become much more independent learners.
  • Student feedback from surveys demonstrates that 96 per cent of students value the outstanding student support at the college, 97 per cent feel it is helpful and 97 per cent believe the support they receive is helping them to progress.

But the statistics we are most proud of? Over the period the programme has been in place, our drop-out rate in the 42-day period dropped to 6 per cent in 2017; in 2018 it further decreased to 5.5 per cent; and the figure for 2019 is 4.5 per cent.

The methods we have employed have supported students at all levels on a range of FE, higher education and apprenticeship programmes. The beauty of the 42 Day Project is that other colleges can adopt any number, or all, of the good-practice measures we have used to support their own students.

If all colleges were to put similar support in place, more students would remain engaged in education or training, fewer students would withdraw and become Neet, and many more would make positive progressions to education, apprenticeships or employment.

Mo Dixon is former vice principal at New College Durham

This article originally appeared in the 10 January 2020 issue under the headline “42 Days Later”

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