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Lifelong learning minister's warning to colleges at the FEFC conference

FOLLOWING the biggest-ever injection of cash from Government into further education last November (pound;725 million), colleges must demonstrate that they can earn ministers' confidence, George Mudie told the Further Education Funding Council and Conference in Birmingham this week. An edited version of the lifelong learning ministers' speech follows.

"The sector has got to prove that it can deliver our objectives, that our investment has been well-spent.

"But personally, I do not feel very confident when I see that:

* too many colleges have achievement rates of 50 per cent or less for those who complete courses;

* some retention rates are below 60 per cent;

* the average absentee rate for college classes is 23 per cent;

* there are wide variations in achievement and retention rates - even where colleges serve similar areas.

"I have heard some colleges speak of their challenging circumstances. They say it is impossible to widen participation and raise standards - that it simply cannot be done. I have seen colleges in action which demolish that argument.

"I know one college that has produced achievement rates of more than 90 per cent for the past two years - and yet many of the wards from which it recruits students experience major social deprivation. In another college, 98 per cent of students pass their A-level exams. The maths provision is said (in an inspection report) to be 'outstanding' and that college got a grade 1 for management.

"But the picture is not always rosy. Some FEFC inspection reports make shocking reading. One college's quality assurance process is "not comprehensive, clear or current" (and it received a grade 4). Targets for improvement are 'poorly defined'.

"It didn't come as any surprise to me that it is one of 30-plus colleges with an achievement rate of below 50 per cent. What hope can it possibly offer somebody looking for a lifeline? Another college got grade 4 for quality assurance and governance! Worse still, only 15 per cent of its students on engineering crafts courses achieved their qualification.

"There are some excellent colleges but there is too much complacency about standards; and there is some outright failure.

"This is why we intend to get tough on standards. Where students' success is in jeopardy; where there is wider evidence of failure, we shall not hesitate to take swift, interventionist action.

"We will introduce a 'Yellow Card' early warning system for colleges which cause significant concern. It will signal: 'this is wrong - action must be taken.' It will be followed by a 'Red Card' if a college fails to demonstrate adequate progress.

"This could mean colleges facing closure, or new governors taking over to make a 'fresh start'. I recognise that this is an uncompromising message but I make no apologies for that. Our collective, overriding priority must be the students.

"But we are not just talking tough, we are putting our money on the table. By backing sound teaching and spreading good practice, the new FE Standards Fund, with pound;115m over the first two years from April, will support a concerted drive to raise standards.

"As well as backing beacon colleges, there will be backing for action plans and real evidence of improvement. There will also be post-inspection support for others, and support for professional development and training of staff and governors."

FE Focus 29 TESJfebruary 19 1999 chris thomond Wind of change: Manchester College of Art and Technology student Alan Ratcliffe restores Prince Philip's 1956 Ford Zephyr

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