ADULTS who failed or dropped out at school are doing dramatically better at colleges in some of the country's most deprived areas.
But government advisers have warned college managers not to become complacent in the run-up to the huge post-16 shake-up proposed by the Government.
In the past two years colleges have handed out 55,000 more certificates. This amounts to a jump of 4 per cent in the number of qualifications awarded, says a new report from the Further Education Funding Council.
In Benchmarking Data 1995-96 to 1997-98 the council says that the lowest-achieving colleges have improved most while the highest-achieving colleges have made only modest gains.
In the bottom quarter the success rate for adults studying for level 1 qualifications, (equivalent to GCSE grade D to G) rose by at least 12 per cent. Over the past two years 62 per cent of students gained qualifications.
The results would push many of these colleges well up performance league tables if value-added factors, such as a deprived backgrounds, were taken into account.
Increases in retention rates also suggest that these colleges are succeeding in recruiting more people from groups at the margins of society.
Small improvements were also apparent among higher-achieving 16 to 18-year-olds. The proportion of students finishing their courses for most qualifications rose from 78 to 80 per cent last year. The proportion of students achieving three A-levels (or equivalent) rose from 75 to 77 per cent in the same period.
Colleges with the highest achievement rates continue to improve. In 1996, a quarter of colleges had achievement rates of at least 83 per cent. By 1998 this had risen to 85 per cent or above.
David Melville, chief executive of the council, said: "This data shows that colleges are responding to measures put in place in 1997."
He warned, however, that in the run-up to New Lanour's massive range of post 16 reforms: "FE cannot be complacent and must make a concerted effort to improve standards at all levels for all students."
The council believes the sector is at last reaping the rewards of a system which provides advice on quality control as well as rigorous inspections.
Jim Donaldson, FEFC chief inspector, said: "We are able to compare like with like and give a much clearer picture of why colleges may fail. They cannot plead special circumstances when they see how colleges such as Knowsley, in very deprived areas, are doing so exceptionally well."
He said colleges could now measure their performance by comparing results with benchmark data published by the council, giving better information for setting targets beyond next year.