Lucy Ward reports on why publication of the first college performance tables has been delayed until November. Around a tenth of colleges could be left off new further education performance tables after failing to submit student data on time.
Delays by some institutions in returning information due last February means the first tables recording individual colleges' pass rates and drop-out will be late and incomplete. So far, 318 colleges out of 460 have had their data analysed and their performance calculated, but the final figure is expected to top 400.
The Further Education Funding Council, which is compiling the tables, says they will be published in November - months later than planned - even though some colleges will not appear.
However, the FEFC insists the hold-ups are no more than inevitable teething problems as the long-awaited initiative gets under way. Spokeswoman Patricia Stubbs said: "The process of putting together the tables has actually encouraged colleges to move along more quickly and sort out any problems with their information gathering. They know it does not look good to be left off."
Preparation of the performance indicators, which cover six categories and are based on 1994-5 figures, has also led some colleges to recalculate and resubmit their raw data after discovering their showing was worse than expected.
Around 20 are understood to have found they had inaccurately recorded the numbers of students achieving qualifications and so appeared to be less successful than they really were. The FEFC is playing down the changes, attributing the errors to historical weaknesses in college enrolment systems which had not been ironed out to meet post-incorporation demands.
The council denies anyone is playing the system, pointing out the indicators will only be recalculated once the revised data has been checked via the FEFC's validation process - a system to be beefed up for the 1995-6 data with a further credibility check.
The performance indicators, which will put further education at the top of the openness league among education sectors, are the product of information gathered through the Individualised Student Record. The ISR, a sector-wide computerised data collection system, provoked howls of anguish in colleges thanks to software flaws and other troubles, but the FEFC is now anxious to play up the gain from the pain.
The indicators will reveal each college's record on achieving its funding target, student numbers, retention rates, qualifications achieved, contribution to national education and training targets, and on value for money. In future, the annual tables will also record year-on-year improvement or slippage, though colleges will be responsible for setting their own improvement targets.
The FEFC will publish the data in alphabetical form, though it accepts the media - and the sector - will convert the information into league tables, probably based on the achievement rate indicator.
Colleges have already been told whether they fall in the middle 50 per cent or in the top or bottom quarter of the tables, partly in order to prepare some for possible adverse media coverage.
The funding council acknowledges that the tables could open up the sector to a lambasting from commentators who may have only a patchy knowledge of FE. But it argues that the benefits in terms of public accountability outweigh the risk of unfavourable publicity.
The information contained in the indicators, which were devised by a high powered group of principals, is intended to prove helpful to colleges, and the FEFC may not be entirely opposed if it also proves a stick to beat some with. The figures are to be included in college inspection reports in the second inspection cycle.
As well as highlighting the performances of individual colleges, the ISR data will be crunched a different way to produce a wealth of national statistics for the sector. These new annual tables, to be published shortly, will offer up information on FE students according to gender, age, mode of study and qualification level.
The FEFC, touchy at colleges' attacks on the "rushed" implementation of the ISR, is anxious to point out other benefits of the data produced. The Kennedy Committee, examining ways to widen participation in FE, has drawn on the figures to identify successful colleges, helping steer its research.
Industry bodies including construction and engineering organisations have requested information on numbers of students studying for qualifications in their fields, while the BBC has asked for details on media studies courses.
FEFC researchers are also experimenting with computer-generated maps of college catchment areas highlighting student distribution, primarily to help the council's regional committees gauge adequacy and sufficiency of provision.