Only about half of those who start further education college courses go on to pass their exams or assessments, according to a shock report published today.
Just 51 per cent of students aged 19 or over achieve the qualifications they set out to get, reveals the National Audit Office, the Government's spending watchdog. The figure is 56 per cent for those aged 16 to 18.
Of the half who fail, 15 per cent drop out before the end of the course. If these drop-outs are excluded, then the "achievement rate" - the number of students who aim for a qualification and then get it - has gone up. It rose from 65 per cent in 1994-95 to 74 per cent in 1998-99, the latest year for which data is available.
But even this improvement hides big variations. In the best colleges, there is a 98 per cent achievement rate, in the worst it is just 33 per cent. And this variation can only partly be explained by external factors such as student funding or deprivation.
The worst colleges are doing better: in 199899, 10 had achievement rates of 50 per cent or under compared with 61 in 1995-96.
But there is still cause for concern at a quarter of colleges and auditors say the system is still failing to support thousands of students.
There is also a wide range of drop-out rates, with colleges keeping between 72 and 98 per cent of students.
There are growing fears that the Government will miss its national learning targets. By 2002, it wants 85 per cent of 19-year-olds to reach level 2 (five A*-C GCSEs, or equivalent), 60 per cent of 21-year-olds to reach level 3 (two A-levels or equivalent) and half of adults to reach level 3.
Sir John Bourn, the Comptroller and Auditor General said colleges had done well to increase achievement rates, and he was pleased that the number with rates below 50 per cent had dropped dramatically. But he said: "Overall success rates remain disappointing, and the gap between the best and worst performing colleges is still too wide.
"Poorer colleges need to adopt the good practices of the best if they are to help the Government meet the national learning targets."
The students most at risk of failure were those who: found themselves on the wrong course; had not met, or only just met, minimum entry requirements; found it difficult to settle in; needed help with literacy and numeracy; had poor attendance; or were not motivated. They might also be short of cash, or be trying to combine study with work.
Auditors found research difficult, as data on retention and achievement was 14 months out of date. It also found that the Further Education Funding Council did not distinguish in its records between students who took the exams and failed, and those who did not even sit them.
The Department for Education and Employment and the Learning and Skills Council should produce better data, and more quickly, auditors said. There should be more "benchmarking" so poor performers knew where they were lacking compared with good colleges, and better assessment of the "value" a college added.
Colleges also had to be better at identifying and supporting students at risk. They should improve teaching and provide better information about the costs of courses and the demands that would be made on students' time.
see www.tesfefocus.co.uk "Improving Student Performance: how English further education colleges can improve student retention and achievement" by the National Audit Office is available from The Stationery Office 0870 600 5522