The final report on far-reaching plans to increase the number of students in further education has been set back by almost six months and is unlikely to be out before the summer.
A Further Education Funding Council committee of inquiry, chaired by Helena Kennedy QC, has failed to reach a consensus on several issues for its report, which was due out in the spring. The area which has caused the greatest anxiety is the role of franchising further education and training courses to agencies outside the college.
The practice of using FEFC funds for college-backed industry training has constantly been questioned as being open to the improper use of private cash in the public sector. The committee members have failed to come up with a clear model of good practice for franchising.
The committee has, however, succeeded in drafting a preliminary nine-point strategy or "nine characteristics of good practice" which will encourage wider participation in FE. It was unveiled last week in Harrogate at the annual conference of the Association for College Management.
A more detailed interim report will go to the Further Education Funding Council next year.
Several areas of continued weakness are revealed in the initial findings of the inquiry. But the emphasis emerging is an overall model of good practice.
The committee's nine characteristics include better marketing, based on good intelligence and research of areas such as the labour market, and improved methods of reaching people not usually attracted to FE - by tapping into popular culture, for example.
Better guidance is needed for students, not just at the beginning but during their courses and when they leave, says the committee. More effective support for learning programmes is called for by the committee. Members were struck by the clever and sensitive use of access funds to help keep students on course in some colleges. They urge wider dissemination of the good practice strategy.
Similarly with the curriculum, the committee felt the best practice was built round "relevant" programmes, which enabled students to progress, often in small steps which built on success rather than measuring success against failure.
The wider promotion of more effective teaching and learning methods is highlighted in the list of best practice characteristics. The methods for recording student achievement, promoting credit accumulation systems using the small steps, was essential. The information gained had to be easily transferable both within the college and to others, such as employers who might take on students later.
The characteristic which has given managers most headaches is the need for better management information systems with which to assess performance In seeking a definition to sum up the efforts to widen participation, the committee suggested the following: "The extent to which learning opportunities are extended to encourage access, success and progression by under-represented groups."
The committee will continue to look at causes for dropping out. Its research suggests college support systems have greater impact on student retention than does their social or economic background.