Concern over failing colleges is being expressed at the very pinnacle of Government, but help is on the way in the form of pound;115 million to improve standards. Ngaio Crequer reports
TONY BLAIR, the Prime Minister, is taking a personal interest in the success of further education colleges amid growing concern over inadequate standards.
Michael Bichard, permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Employment, told a conference in London that complacent colleges should be nudged into raising their standards.
"Perhaps more than nudge, because ministers are committed to strong and uncompromising action where standards are clearly unacceptable," he told the conference, at which the rescue plans for failing colleges were revealed in detail. "And I can tell you from having discussed it with him recently, so is the Prime Minister."
Citing new evidence of under-achievement identified by college inspectors but not necessarily included in the Further Education Funding Council annual report, Mr Bichard said that there were pockets of excellence, but quality across the board was not consistent enough (see box).
The Government's new Standards Fund, pound;115 million over the next two years, was there to help, Mr Bichard said. But its purpose was not just to rectify serious failure. There had to be solid year-on-year progress in all colleges.
Jim Donaldson, FEFC chief inspector, outlined the criteria used for identifying poorly-performing colleges.
A college would be "causing concern" if it had two or more grades 4 or 5 as the result of an inspection, if a grade profile placed them in the lowest 10 per cent of all colleges, or if there were significant concerns about quality, financial management, data management or governance.
There will also be cause for concern if the college is in the lowest 10 per cent for either achievement or retention. Colleges unable to produce adequate data would be judged a problem because of that alone.
For those in trouble the council will provide focused support to enable them to improve quickly.
The council will work with the college to help them to identify weaknesses and to develop an action plan, said Mr Donaldson. The action plan will be costed and monitored and help from the Standards Fund will be dependent on a college making sufficient progress.
The council had issued guidance on targets for colleges. It had analysed student data for 1995-96 and 1996-97, when there was no specific mandate to raise student achievement or to encourage them to stay on.
However, some colleges had made progress: 143 colleges improved retention, 191 improved achievement and 64 colleges improved both.
Colleges will be encouraged by the council to collaborate with each other, he said. For example, those causing concern could pay colleges with expertise in, say, financial management, to provide assistance and support.
MIXED PICTURE OF PERFORMANCE
* While some colleges met 98 per cent of their learning targets, others met less less than 30 per cent.
* In the average college, 84 per cent of students stayed the course, but more than 20 colleges had rates below 60 per cent.
* One in 10 colleges gave "significant cause for concern". At a further 15 per cent much of the provision was at best satisfactory.
* The average absentee rate was 23 per cent.
* Nearly 40 per cent of lessons were satisfactory or worse and at one in 12 colleges, management or governance was unsatisfactory.