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Colleges have hit their targets two years early

But minister invites anger by saying success shows FE lobby is 'crying wolf' over underfunding. Joseph Lee reports

Colleges have met their targets for student success two years ahead of schedule, new figures from the Learning and Skills Council reveal.

A sixth successive year of improved results means that 72 per cent of students successfully completed their courses last year, up from 65 per cent three years ago.

It means that the target set by the Learning and Skills Council in February last year, for 2006, was met by students taking their exams in summer 2004.

The figures also show a five-point improvement in the percentage who complete work-based learning, although that still leaves just 46 per cent of apprenticeships and national vocational qualifications being finished successfully.

At the same time, evidence gathered as part of the Government's Success for All reforms shows that the number of students has increased by 20 per cent since 1997.

More of these students now come from the Government's target groups.

Students from the bottom three socio-economic groups make up 41 per cent of FE college students, compared to 22 per cent in school sixth forms.

But the record results have only added fuel to the dispute between colleges and the Government over funding.

Bill Rammell, further education minister, said the results vindicated the Government's priorities and showed, in the face of funding protests, that it was giving the right financial support to colleges.

He said: "We want to send a very clear message of congratulations. In many areas, the sector is doing a very good job. But the way we talk about the sector doesn't always reflect that.

"I genuinely do not think there is a crisis at the moment. But I do think there is a danger in trying to make out there is a financial crisis when there isn't one: there is the danger of crying wolf.

"The message that this is all doom and gloom doesn't accord with the facts and doesn't serve the long-term interests of the sector."

He said the Association of Colleges was exaggerating problems and risked being ignored, but he denied that his position amounted to a threat to freeze out the association from future discussions.

The AoC has been campaigning to close the funding gap of about 10 per cent between schools and FE colleges and protesting at cuts to adult education.

Mr Rammell said: "I want the AoC to have real influence on what we do, but we need grown-up dialogue for that to happen. I don't think the 1970s style campaigning of throwing stones from the sidelines actually influences anything," he said.

Mr Rammel also suggested that colleges may be set new targets to capitalise on their success.

But the evidence gathered for Success for All says the numbers of 16 to 19-year-olds who stay on and pass short courses and A-levels may have hit a ceiling at about 90 per cent.

Further progress will depend on improvements in long vocational courses, whose success rates are trailing at 59 per cent for teenagers.

Colleges say that ensuring students are on the right course has been crucial to hitting the targets, although some students also drop out of courses when teaching is substandard.

Maggie Scott, the AoC's curriculum and quality adviser, said colleges should be given incentives to reward them for success.

She said: "The Learning and Skills Council and others set a welter of targets for colleges, but it is colleges themselves which have done the work.

"Colleges are effectively penalised for being FE colleges by receiving 10 per cent less than schools. There is no carrot, only the stick that provision will be taken away if it is unsatisfactory."

The LSC's public relations firm, Rubicon, was unable to explain why it has taken until now for Government to release the figures.

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