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Dubious, but unable to resist a look

Parents and students take little notice of league tables when choosing a college, many principals believe.

Word-of-mouth recommendations and general reputation has a far greater influence than points scores, according to college managers scanning the second full set of tables to have appeared since colleges became independent of local authority control.

While some colleges, particularly those vying for top positions, may take their ranking more seriously than they admit, many principals argue that the league tables are no help to anyone.

Anne Smith, principal of John Ruskin College, south London, said: "The fact that Richmond College obviously pulled all stops out and made a phenomenal improvement, pipping us to second place in the South-east, won't affect their punters or mine, so what is the point?"

Parents seeking to compare school and college performances would find the vast majority of the schools topping the list for A-levels were north of the Thames, or in the Midlands, said Mrs Smith. "The tables may be of general interest but they have been flagged up as an aid to parental choice. What should parents do, move north?"

Sandy MacDonald, principal at recently-merged Ridge-Danyers College, too new to appear in this year's tables, said students able to choose between several local colleges soon develop a preference. "It does not actually make a difference where colleges are on the points score - I think there is a high insulation factor protecting them from the effects of year-on-year changes. "

Principals renewed their objections, raised last year, that the tables offer a highly selective picture of individual colleges' performances.

Designed to offer a comparison with schools, the tables focus purely on 16 to 18-year-olds, and the benchmark figure used to rank establishments is the average number of points gained by candidates entered for two or more A-levels or the AS-level equivalent. The vocational qualification element reflects only those courses also offered in schools.

Inevitably, sixth-form colleges rise to the top of the FE table, though they still fail to reach the highest echelons, where independent schools continue to dominate. This year's top-scoring college is Hills Road sixth-form college in Cambridge, a position it has held for three years now, though there has been some movement among those below.

Meanwhile, FE colleges' work teaching adults and offering foundation or intermediate vocational courses is still unrecorded in the tables.

Mike Austin, chairman of the Association for Colleges and principal of Accrington and Rossendale College, said the league tables were "very bad on the key point of what colleges do, which is to add value. If we could find some way of reflecting distance travelled I think we would all welcome them much more warmly than we do now."

Janey Rees, principal of Coventry Technical College, admitted to "looking anxiously" at the tables, but criticised their failure to take account of students' background. She suggested an extra column stating what percentage of those taking A-levels had previously gained five A to C grade GCSEs in order to "get relative scores into perspective".

FE colleges, whose intake is likely to keep them fairly low in the tables, are not alone in calling for more information.

The Sixth-Form Colleges' Association is researching value-added measures, and the National Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets has called for the inclusion of foundation and intermediate-level vocational qualifications.

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