Further education this week laid claim to being the most successful part of the UK education system, with the publication of a raft of figures showing how it has exceeded government targets and improved performance across the board.
According to official figures assembled for the first time by the FE Reputation Strategy Group, eight out of 10 learners last year achieved the qualification they started out on - a target the sector was not expected to achieve until 2010. The achievement target for 2007-08 was 76 per cent.
The figures, supplied by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, also show that more than 2.8 million adults improved their basic skills between 200102 and 200708, shattering the target of 2.25 million by 2010.
On top of this, the sector saw rises in the numbers of young people achieving level 2 and 3 qualifications (GCSE and A-level equivalents) and even larger increases in the numbers of adults gaining qualifications at these levels (see panel).
The figures were welcomed across the sector, but the Association of Colleges said that while further education providers were clearly delivering their side of the bargain, they had been let down when it came to state funding.
Martin Doel, chief executive of the AoC, said: "This is the most successful education sector at this present time and we should be reinforcing this success. But resources are not being reinforced as they should be at a point when the need for the sort of education and training the sector delivers is greatest."
Mr Doel said that the sector's ability to respond rapidly and successfully to changes in policy and demand made it hard for policy makers and agencies to keep pace. He referred to the current uncertainty over capital funding and concerns over funding for 16 to 19-year-olds and the budget for the Train to Gain programme.
"Because of the nature of the challenges they have been set, colleges have emerged as a lean and effective sector and it sometimes feels like we are motoring ahead of our funding agencies," he said.
Mr Doel said that the latest statistics should improve the sector's hand in negotiations over funding, including the money for capital. The AoC is hopeful that there may be some money for colleges in the Budget, announced on Wednesday.
"The Treasury should be impressed by our ability to deliver government targets," Mr Doel said.
Alison Birkinshaw, principal of York College and chair of the reputation strategy group, said: "My belief is that this success is due to personalised learning in colleges, to the hard work by staff and to the excellent leadership and management.
"I believe we have a very strong FE sector and that we are starting to get the recognition we deserve. The role of the group is to bring the achievements of the sector to the attention of the wider public."
The group, established in 2007 to get sector leaders working towards the common goal of enhancing FE's reputation nationally, intends to publish the collated success figures year on year.
Anatomy of FE accomplishments 200708
- 138,600 young people achieved full level 2 qualifications, up 3.4 per cent on 200607
- 159,800 young people achieved full level 3, up 7.8 per cent
- 320,600 adults achieved full level 2, up 36.5 per cent
- 134,500 adults achieved full level 3, up 17 per cent
- 3.3 million Learning and Skills Council-funded adult learners in total, up 3.2 per cent
- 80.6 per cent overall college success rate, up from 78 per cent in 200607 and beating the 80 per cent target for 2010
- 79.9 per cent success rate for young people, up 2.6 percentage points on 200607.