The bottom 10 per cent of colleges two years ago have improved their achievement rates by 23 percentage points, according to the Further Education Funding Council. The best performing colleges in this group boosted achievement by nearly 30 per cent.
The figures, which the council describes as "exceptional" are revealed in the latest performance indicators for 426 colleges.
And all colleges are getting better. The achievement rate for all qualifications in colleges rose 7 points from 66 per cent to 73 per cent between 1996-97 and 1998-99. Achievement is measured by a student enrolling for a course and gaining the qualification aimed for.
Much of the reason for the improvement is the impact of the Government's Standards Fund. This provides cash for weaker colleges, and much of it has gone on basic skills. "Better resources, better teachers and better results," said a spokesman.
The significant improvements made by those at the bottom has helped to reducethe disparity between college achievement rates. For example, two years ago, a quarter of colleges had an achievement rate below 60 per cent. This has now gone up to 70 per cent.
Retention rates remain stable, with 87 per cent of full-time students staying on, and 84 per cent of part-timers. Colleges with a history of students dropping out show strong improvements.
But achieving funding targets has been more difficult, which the council says illustrates the "challenges" facing colleges. Nearly 60 per cent of colleges achieved or surpassed their funding target, a slightly lower figure than in previous years.
David Melville, chief executive of the funding council, said: "Achievement across the sector as a whole has risen again with retention remaining at previous levels. The dramatic improvement in achievement rates amongst those colleges with the weakest record, provides clear evidence that our quality improvement strategies are working.
"Students are getting a better quality educational experience and the Government is getting a clear return on its investment in FE."