Compare and survive

2nd December 1994 at 00:00
South East Derbyshire College

Neil Merrick looks at the different ways in which a school and an FE college chose to measure their success.

When principal Mick Brown invited Ben Johnson-Hill Associates into South East Derbyshire College, he was hoping to be presented with a series of findings which would confirm what he already knew."I had developed a feeling about where this college was compared with others, but I needed some reliable indicators to inform my feelings," said Mr Brown.

Ben Johnson-Hill, a small Nottingham-based firm, has created an database which is attracting increasing interest among colleges in England and Scotland. Its "Best Practice" project, originally developed for textile manufacturers and hotels, contains 750 measurements which tell colleges almost everything they ever wanted to know about class sizes, teaching hours, staffing costs and the use of facilities.

The company collects data from the colleges itself to ensure that the information is standardised. It then reveals to each college how its ratios or performance indicators compare against the best and average ratios for others within a selected peer group.

South East Derbyshire has an average class size of 13.5 compared with a group norm of 17. But Mark Flynn, director of planning and finance, said it was no good looking at class sizes in isolation. "Our criticism of performance indicators is that they focus on one or two soundbites rather than presenting an overall picture," he explained. "If you have a low class size, you should also have higher retention rates and pass rates".

So far, the Best Practice project has avoided looking at so-called quality measures such as retention rates. Managing director Ben Johnson-Hill said the information gained from colleges was not reliable enough to make accurate comparisons. Mr Flynn said the college's drop-out rate of 5 per cent of students per term compared favourably with the national average of 8 per cent calculated by the Office for Standards in Education.

Colleges using Best Practice can choose whether their data is compared against local colleges, similar-sized colleges in other areas or the country as a whole. So far 32 colleges have joined the project and the number is increasing at a rate of four per month.

Mick Brown said the data would allow governors and senior managers to make informed decisions. South East Derbyshire, for example, was shown to teach students for an average of 660 hours a year. The figure for other colleges in the project ranges between 597 and 861."If the argument was put that we needed to reduce taught hours to save money, I could show that it's not an area that will produce a saving without difficulty," he said.

Colleges pay Pounds 8,000 to enrol for Best Practice. In the case of South East Derbyshire, half the cost was underwritten by the local TEC.

Mick Brown said his college tried to reduce any mistrust of figures by being as open as possible with all information. "There is no way this report is going to just sit on my desk. I can guarantee that my NATFHE chairman will have as much access to this information as I do".

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