Students are shunning extra-curricular activities but colleges have been told they must shoulder part of the blame. Lucy Ward reports.
The majority of students cannot see the point of joining in out-of-class activities and colleges are not doing enough to lure them, a new study has found.
A national survey by college inspectors reveals worrying low-attendance levels in many extra-curricular courses, with many students and their teachers giving the activities low priority compared with their main studies.
In colleges where the programmes are not compulsory, the courses are likely to be taken up by only a quarter of students and in some cases as few as one in 10, according to the Further Education Funding Council study.
Even where a wide range of sports, arts and other activities are on offer, many students participate reluctantly or not at all and see the activities as peripheral to their main objective in attending college.
The report, called Enrichment of the Curriculum, urges colleges to tackle problems of low participation. Adults and part-time students are neglected when the programmes are being devised, it says.
But the study also acknowledges that extra-curricular activities have often borne the brunt of funding cuts.
Colleges have lost one source of cash for the programmes with the axing of the national Technical and Vocational Education Initiative, and those with residential provision are also having to pass on increased costs to students after losing local authority discretionary awards. The search for savings has led some to axe less popular activities, with some reducing their overall provision by a fifth or more.
Despite the cash pressures inspectors say many improvements to the programmes could be made by colleges themselves. Few have analysed the costs of the activities in detail, mainly because they are still getting to grips with the concept of value for money, it says.
Even where attendance levels are low, colleges often fail to ask why. Those which do closely monitor participation have not fully analysed the results. Students are rarely involved in evaluation, and so have little opportunity to influence what is on offer.
Colleges need to have a clearer idea of the aims of their extra-curricular programmes and tie them in with the whole curriculum, says the study. Though there is a general consensus that the activities are important, less than a third of colleges include a reference to enrichment in their strategies. Students' chances of benefiting from non-compulsory programmes often rested on their tutor's enthusiasm.
Sixth-form colleges, many of which make extra-curricular work compulsory, lead the way in making a formal commitment to offering the activities, while specialist institutions such as agricultural and art and design colleges lag furthest behind.
While calling for a more formal role for out-of-class activities in colleges, inspectors found programmes were generally of a high standard. Almost two-thirds had strengths which clearly outweighed weaknesses and inspectors praised achievement in creative and performing arts, sport, community service and group projects.
The survey found a growing trend among colleges towards accrediting extra-curricular activities so that students completing the programmes achieve some form of award or certificate.
The move increases students' motivation and helps encourage more rigorous standards of work, according to the inspectors. But it also means that the line between extra-curricular and curricular activities is becoming increasingly blurred.