Top-performing colleges are helping unemployed students into sustainable jobs at a rate nearly 10 times that reported by the government's Work Programme, a survey has found.
According to the research by the Association of Colleges (AoC), nearly a quarter of colleges reported that 30 per cent or more of their unemployed students entered long-term jobs at the end of their course.
By contrast, an evaluation of the first phase of the Work Programme found that, on average, only 3.5 per cent of clients had found sustainable employment. Although the performance of the programme is expected to improve as it progresses, the figure was lower than expected if there had been no intervention at all. Only 4 per cent of colleges reported employment rates of less than 5 per cent.
The results of the survey were released as official figures showed a rise in unemployment to 7.9 per cent, with youth unemployment hitting 21.1 per cent, or almost a million under-25s.
Joy Mercer, director of policy at the AoC, said that over the past two years, colleges had transformed their working relationship with job centres, resulting in a higher number of referrals and students who were more likely to complete their courses. The average college now receives 920 referrals from Jobcentre Plus, compared with just 103 referrals from the Work Programme.
"Two years ago we would have said that the relationship with Jobcentre Plus was poor in terms of referrals. That has improved enormously," Ms Mercer said.
In London, for instance, she said that Jobcentre Plus had agreed to make the completion of English classes a priority for those with language needs. Previously, the pressure on job centres to place people in work meant that their courses were often interrupted for short-term or seasonal employment, which was not sustainable. Once students could speak English, they were much more likely to secure long-term work, Ms Mercer said.
While 44 per cent of colleges described their relationship with Jobcentre Plus as "excellent", just 7 per cent said the same of Work Programme providers. Only a small number of Work Programme clients are placed on substantial education or training programmes, with most concentrating on employability skills such as CV-writing and interview technique.
The AoC's research follows Ofsted's Skills for Employment report last year, which criticised colleges for their uneven performance in getting unemployed people into work. In a survey of 31 colleges, it showed that the worst performer found jobs for only 1 per cent of 416 learners. The best performers achieved 46 per cent but Ofsted said the average of one in five was too low.
More than a third of colleges said poor communication with the Work Programme was a barrier to improving employment rates. But colleges rated restrictions on funding and Jobcentre rules as more significant, along with the lack of available jobs. The most common complaint was that tracking learner progress into employment over six months was too difficult.
But colleges predict that one change will mean they have more opportunity to work with unemployed students: the benefits reform that will see universal credit gradually introduced between October this year and 2017.
That will mean an end to the 16-hour rule, which prevented people from claiming Jobseeker's Allowance if they were on a full-time course, on the grounds that it meant they were not available to look for work. More than a third of colleges expect their enrolments to increase as a result of the abolition of this rule.
Ministers also wanted to boost the capacity of FE to address youth unemployment last year, when business secretary Vince Cable and FE minister Matthew Hancock floated the possibility of a new programme called Earn or Learn, offering financial support to unemployed people aged 18-21 studying for qualifications.
"How can we justify a system in which we pay people so long as they don't train, rather than support people so long as they do? It's bad for the economy, it's unfair on young people and it has to stop," Mr Hancock told the AoC conference in November.
But a spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said there had been no further discussions about taking forward the Earn or Learn plan. "We are continuing work with the Department for Work and Pensions to improve the fit between the benefits and skills systems," she added.
1,065 Average number of unemployed students at a college.
82% Proportion of colleges that saw an increase in the number of unemployed students.
87% Proportion of colleges that say relationships with JobCentre Plus are excellent or good.
37% Proportion of colleges that say relationships with Work Programme providers are good.
71% Proportion of colleges that say difficulties in keeping track of learner progress into employment is a key barrier.
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