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Frustration over ranking which masks successes

In the week of the performance tables Lucy Ward reports on fears that colleges are choosing academic high-fliers to boost their averages. When performance-table time comes round, Bishop Auckland College, County Durham, feels like an iceberg - only a fraction of its achievement is visible, while the rest stays firmly out of sight.

Hovering around the lower part of the middle of the table, the college is among the many in the sector to believe a performance league based largely on A-level achievement has little or nothing to do with its work.

"Like most colleges, we did fairly poorly in the A-level stakes," principal Joanna Tait says. "But the major problem the tables have for us is that they actually show an area of work which is a dot on the horizon of our total portfolio. They do not give any indication of where our strengths are."

A glance at the tables illustrates her view. Last year, the college's students gained an average of 3.6 points where they took two or more A-levels. Only 10 candidates out of a total student population of just over 5,000 fell into that category. This year, the number is even fewer - just six students - though the average points score has shot up to 8.7, more than half the national average of 16 points.

Bishop Auckland, traditionally offering vocational courses to its 600 full-time and 4,500 part-time students, would come out well if the tables concentrated on the Business and Technology Education Council nationals and general national vocational qualifications and took modular courses and credit accumulation into account, Mrs Tait argues.

It is now the largest sixth-form centre in south Durham, where unemployment runs at 12 per cent after the near-total loss of the mining and railway industries. The college finds most of its 16 to 18-year-olds take vocational programmes, with business studies, computing and child care boom areas.

Its real expansion, however, is among adults - the part-timers now being drawn in to classes on housing estates and in village halls in both the urban and the remote rural areas of its local community. "Serving the real needs of local people is exactly what further education colleges are supposed to do,"says Mrs Tait. "Yet as far as the tables are concerned, all this might as well be invisible."

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