Colleges continue to lead the way in delivering education to older students and to those from the most deprived backgrounds - and they are doing it on a firmer financial base.
The latest data on staff and student performance in FE, published last week by the funding council, reveals enrolments for students aged 25 and over increased by 19 per cent between 1998-99 and 2003-04, and now stand at 60 per cent.
The council reports: "The majority of these students are employed and enrolled on part-time programmes, demonstrating that the FE sector is clearly supporting the lifelong learning agenda."
The sector also appears to be exceeding targets in reaching out to the most disadvantaged communities, but it is only maintaining the position - 27 per cent of enrolments for FE courses came from the 20 per cent most deprived postcode areas in 2003-04, the same proportion as in 2001-02. The figure for students from these areas on higher education courses in colleges is also 27 per cent.
The performance indicators point to a good standard of education for those who enrol and continue. Some 95 per cent of students stayed on past the first quarter of their programmes, the critical stage for funding, which ceases for those who pull out; of those who stayed on beyond that stage, 84 per cent completed their studies and 78 per cent either gained an award or moved on to the next year of study.
Around four out of five employers have also expressed general satisfaction with the recruits they get from FE colleges, according to the annual Scottish Employer Skills Survey. But only a fifth of employers who provided off-the-job training did so from a college, compared with half who used private training firms.
Reports for all 46 colleges inspected between 2000-04 showed that 84 per cent of grades awarded for the quality of subject teaching were very good or good. For college-wide elements, the average during the four years was very good or good.
The financial security of colleges also shows continuing signs of improvement, moving from a deficit of 1.2 per cent of their total income in 2002-03 to a surplus of 0.4 per cent last year.