A report published this week by the Further Education Funding Council finds humanities is the largest, most diverse and best-taught of the 10 FEFC programme areas, accounting for more than a quarter of enrolments in the sector.
The range of subjects, levels and modes of attendance is a key feature of this programme more than any other, with colleges offering courses on-site, in outreach centres, during workplace "business breakfasts" and even on buses visiting remote areas.
However, the report strikes a gloomy note as evidence emerges that colleges' attempts to provide breadth have led to unviably low staff-student ratios in some subjects. Institutions are increasingly having to review their provision as a result, says the study.
The report praises the quality of humanities teaching offered in some form by every college in the sector and attracting a total of more than 930,000 enrolments in 1994-95. During that year, the programme won the highest proportion of the top two inspection grades awarded to teaching sessions in the sector.
Classroom teaching was often enriched with educational visits, foreign exchanges and visiting speakers. However, the inspectors found teaching on some GCSE resit courses and on vocational courses including humanities elements was less satisfactory.
Concern also emerges in the report over wide variations in exam pass rates in different humanities subjects and in different years within single institutions.
In a single college, some GCSE one-year, full-time courses may have unacceptably low pass rates, while achievement is high in comparable A-level subjects. To illustrate year-on-year fluctuations, the report cites one college where the pass rate for A-level geography in 1994 was 13 per cent down on the previous year, while the pass rate for French rose by 9 per cent.
Colleges too frequently attribute poor results to "a poor year" and make too little effort to identify ways to raise standards, say the inspectors.
However, the report says that, though individual colleges may experience inconsistencies, there is no evidence to suggest standards in humanities have fallen over the past 20 years, despite the large increase in participation rates and the range of students taking humanities courses. Standards remain high, say inspectors, with colleges introducing new subjects and developing new provision to cater more effectively for students' needs.
The inspectors say tutorial support is well established, but colleges are doing too little to help with more general skills, particularly in information technology.
There is also room for improvement in colleges' management of humanities staff. Where structures and management are weak, staff stay isolated in their subject area, with little opportuntity to share good practice, says the study.
In most colleges, humanities courses are secure and expected to expand, although the predicted average growth of about 6 per cent between now and 1997 is the lowest. Colleges believe potential for growth lies with adult students, particularly on part-time and access courses, and with students taking A-level or GCSE subjects as part of a general national vocational qualification - a growing trend. They also expect to mop up some of the increasing numbers of young people moving towards humanities subjects and away from sciences.
TES june 7 1996 guzelian