Two years ago, post-16 education providers in Wales were urged to give their students a greater say in their own learning and a bigger role in decision-making.
Last week, a report by Estyn, the Welsh inspectorate, found that while most providers had taken the advice on board, there was no way of measuring its impact because none of the colleges or sixth-forms monitored their schemes or recorded the outcomes.
Chief inspector Ann Keane complained that, although providers claimed their students were more confident, a "lack of robust data" was available to back it up.
The idea of pupil voice was already well-established in primary and secondary schools in Wales, but in the FE sector it rarely went beyond a simple survey of students' views.
The Welsh government wanted to make sure that students felt a sense of belonging and ownership, so it developed guidance for providers on how they could better engage with their learners. It said each one should provide a statement of commitment ensuring that learners have direct involvement in shaping their own experiences, and suggested a number of formal and informal channels for seeking their views and giving feedback.
But in its report, Estyn said that while there was anecdotal evidence of success, none of Wales's FE institutions had tackled how to monitor or evaluate the impact their schemes had, either personally, socially or educationally.
"There are no examples of systems for tracking individual learners to measure whether their participation in the learner involvement activities helps them to improve their outcomes," it said. "A few institutions stated that learner involvement activities had a positive impact on learners' completion, attainment and success rates. However, these institutions have no formal systems in place to demonstrate this."
Philip Dixon, director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers Cymru, said he was surprised it had not occurred to colleges that they should monitor their schemes.
"We know it's happening and often there is a great deal of good work going on, but we need to know how much, and whether it is making a difference," he said. "One of the things the FE sector can learn from schools is the power of student voice. We need to look at this systematically and analyse it thoroughly. It may be that it's working better in some areas than others."
John Graystone, chief executive of ColegauCymru, which represents all of Wales's FE colleges, said it was "very much work in progress".
"Colleges are not complacent in respect to learner involvement and are always willing to improve their performance and to take on board recommendations from Estyn," he said. "Colleges are looking now at how best they can monitor and evaluate the benefits of learner involvement to individual learners, through their learner consultative groups and their learner-centred quality systems."
Despite the lack of evidence, students who responded to an Estyn questionnaire described a range of personal and social benefits from the learner involvement schemes, including: increased motivation and confidence; improved citizenship skills; higher-level skills of reflection and evaluation; and improved communication and social skills.
Estyn urged the Welsh government and post-16 providers to set up national and local monitoring systems. Ms Keane said: "It would be useful if providers put systems in place to monitor and evaluate the personal, social and educational benefits of involvement for individual learners."
The report also recommended that the government should set up national forums that would allow students to shape the nature and scope of their learning.
Estyn found several good examples of learner involvement strategies at FE colleges in Wales.
- Pembrokeshire College has set up a learner voice committee in which students can give feedback about courses. This has influenced changes to tutorials, a revision of the laptop policy and refurbishment of the canteen.
- Coleg Sir Gar has increased learner representation on its corporate board, allowing students to influence car parking, building design and the way canteens are run.
- Deeside College has organised a campus council on each of its four main sites, while Coleg Morgannwg has campus-based learner parliaments.