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Big picture is unveiled

THE first ever performance statistics for the further education sector are published today (Friday) by the Scottish Further Education Funding Council - but without vital indicators on colleges' financial health which were slipped out virtually unnoticed in July (see panel).

Both sets of figures, for 2001-02, appear to show colleges in a good, or improving, light, although one comment suggested the reams of statistics could be termed "data rich and information poor".

This was partly reflected in the usual cautionary health warning from David Wann, the funding council's deputy chief executive, who pointed to the importance of placing the information in context.

"Every piece of data has to be looked at in conjunction with each other," Mr Wann said. "The particular circumstances of individual colleges are also important, such as the mix of part-time and full-time students, the balance of further and higher education courses, the levels of deprivation, and so on."

The Association of Scottish Colleges welcomed the information as "a valuable baseline against which we can measure trends in the future". But it, too, warned against league tables. "The debate about what adds value for student and employer goes on," Tom Kelly, ASC chief officer, said.

Positive messages have emerged - 80 per cent of employers thought that recruits from colleges were well prepared for work, student satisfaction with their teaching is running at 90 per cent, only 5 per cent of students did not go beyond the first quarter of their programme and 84 per cent of full-time permanent lecturers were qualified to teach (although a third of FE teaching staff are not in that category).

This generally upbeat picture has taken place against a 15 per cent increase in student enrolments from 1998-2002, compared with the Government's target of an extra 40,000 students which would have been a 10 per cent increase.

There are particular success stories. Stow College emerges with the highest percentage of students successfully completing their FE courses - 97 per cent against a Scottish average of 83 per cent. Angus and Jewel and Esk Valley colleges have the lowest completion rates, at 74 per cent.

But one of the more remarkable success stories may be the college with the second highest FE completion figure - John Wheatley in Glasgow at 93 per cent (jointly with North Highland College in Thurso). The Glasgow college enrols more students from deprived areas than any other - 70 per cent from the 20 per cent most deprived postcodes compared with a Scottish average of 25 per cent.

But the ASC warns that these figures have to be treated with caution. The most contentious issue for colleges has always been "what counts as success?" If a student leaves early for a job, that is success for the student but not for the college which then attracts a non-retention penalty.

Mr Kelly said: "Students likely to be on the margins of attainment, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, may not be aiming to complete their programme. Merely tasting success, perhaps for the first time, and getting their first foot on the ladder of attainment counts as a substantial achievement. Most colleges take the view that getting these students through the door is an important part of their mission, even if it is at some financial cost."

The importance of individual circumstances is reflected in figures which show that Edinburgh Stevenson College has the best HE completion record - with 95 per cent of students staying the course against a Scottish average of 86 per cent. A number of other colleges are close behind.

Mr Wann acknowledged that, despite the plethora of statistics, the indicators are "a management tool which will provoke as many questions as answers. Do they reveal opportunities for colleges? Can colleges do some things better?"

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