College performance comes under increased scrutiny with the publication this week of statistics designed to help under-performing institutions tackle student drop-out and failure.
Benchmarking data issued by the Further Education Funding Council will, for the first time, allow colleges to map their achievement and retention rates against other institutions with comparable intakes and which offer a similar range of courses.
The initiative comes a month after a report from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee described variation in levels of student achievement as "very disturbing" and called on the FEFC to help the worst-performing colleges. The second stage of the process to drive up standards will come next month when the FEFC issues guidelines to colleges on target setting.
Data compiled from the individual student records of 360 colleges and contained in a series of 21 statistical tables, give percentages for pass rates and staying-on levels for general further education and tertiary, sixth-form and specialist colleges across courses of different durations ranging from NVQ level 1 to degree and HND level. Separate tables give data for colleges with a high number of students from disadvantaged areas.
Jim Donaldson, FEFC's chief inspector, said there were three aims behind the benchmarking - to push up educational standards in line with Government policy, to underpin the college inspection regime and to pave the way for college accreditation.
He said: "We are attempting to mirror for FE, with some differences in detail, that which is on the agenda in schools."
But he denied that the new emphasis on comparing performance would lead to colleges with a poor track record being labelled, like underattaining schools, as failing. "There are some colleges that give cause for concern," he admitted. "But it is clear to the wider world when a college is failing because one need only look at the grade profile."
The process of accreditation - giving top performing colleges more autonomy and fewer inspections - would free up FEFC resources which could then be used to help struggling colleges, he said.
"What this data will do is to allow colleges to make comparisons and say where they sit in relation to others. What we are trying to do is present it as we see it and to reflect different levels of performance across the sector. This will allow colleges, in a much more meaningful way, to assess their performance."
But he admitted that the data might need some fine-tuning - perhaps taking into account factors such as mode of attendance and regional variations - before it could be finalised. Colleges are being asked to comment on the proposals.
The data, based on figures from 1995-6 and 1996-7, shows falling retention and increasing achievement across almost all college and course types, a trend that could be partly explained by initiatives to widen participation, Mr Donaldson said. "There is a tension between the aspiration to widen participation on the one hand and to achieve higher levels on the other. As we widen and deepen participation then in the short term there may well be an impact on retention. "