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Drop-out numbers are still too high

Welsh colleges are moving in the right direction, but not enough students are staying the course. Steve Hook reports

STANDARDS of student achievement have improved in Welsh colleges, but inspectors say not enough students are getting the qualifications they enrolled for.

Inspectors gave 15 per cent of colleges grade one for student achievement and motivation in 2001-02, compared with 14 per cent in 2000-01, and the proportion getting grade two has increased from 53 to 58 per cent.

Lecturers and managers should take credit for the turnaround as well as the students themselves, says Estyn, the Welsh education and training inspectorate.

But standards, while improved, remain below acceptable standards, according to Estyn's annual report, which states: "Standards are generally too low on full-time courses in computing, construction and engineering. Standards on full-time courses in art and design and travel and leisure have fallen."

The report also says that colleges need to do more to identify under-motivated full-time students at an early stage and to provide the appropriate support. Many students drop out or under-achieve compared with those on part-time courses, most of whom finish their courses and gain qualifications.

College principals and managers are becoming better organised: most have altered their management structures to make them more efficient.

"They generally now have fewer levels of management," says the report. "In most cases, the change has helped senior and middle-managers understand more about each other's work. However, in a few institutions, the principal has line management responsibility for too many members of staff and cannot effectively oversee all the matters for which they are responsible."

Governors have cleaned up their act, says the report, by paying closer attention to the curriculum and checking the quality of education provided in their colleges. But the report also suggests that the colleges have been too inward-looking. It says that only a minority of governing bodies are comparing the performance of their own colleges with others, and that there needs to be more collaboration to help weaker institutions to make up lost ground.

Estyn, which is responsible for the inspection of schools and post-16 provision in Wales, is committed to investigating bureaucracy in colleges which, while less of a burden than in England, is affecting their performance. Assembly education minister Jane Davidson has welcomed the report's findings but says further education, while improving, falls short in some key areas.

Ms Davidson said: "In the FE sector, levels of attainment have improved on full-time courses, particularly in applied science, general education and access studies.

"Provision in the sector provides a key route for people to develop and upgrade their knowledge and skills. One of the sector's strengths lies in its ability to cater for those who wish to study part-time.

"To the credit of institutions, the report notes that most who pursue this route usually complete their programmes of study and gain qualifications.

"But in some instances, drop-out rates on full-time courses are still too high. I know that institutions are already targeting support at those who need advice on course choice and learning skills. But there is clearly more to be done.

"Standards of work-based training have improved since last year. However, I am disappointed that the report identifies considerable room for improvement, with the level of unsatisfactory provision at 14 per cent."

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