Startling variations in achievement are revealed by the most comprehensive performance tables of colleges' work, published this week.
The tables, hailed by funding chiefs as a breakthrough for openness and planning, show differences in student success, recruitment and retention rates, as well as funding.
Professor David Melville, chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council, pointed to the enormous and cost-effective contribution colleges were making to post-16 education and training everywhere.
The Association of Colleges said the tables would be "extremely valuable" for managers, allowing comparisons between institutions.
But there were warnings that the information was collected while colleges were still grappling with the problems of recording their performance, and may not convey the full extent of their work.
Highlights of the data include:
- Student success: there is an apparent gulf between the best and worst-performing colleges. On average, 71 per cent of students completed their programmes. At the top-ranked colleges nearly all the students gained the qualifications they were aiming for, while in the lowest-scoring colleges the figure dropped below 30 per cent.
- Drop-out rates: on average, 88 per cent of full-time students and 87 per cent of part-time students starting on courses lasting at least a year were still at college by the end of the year. Individual colleges varied between those that kept all their students during the year, and those that only kept around half.
- Recruitment: most colleges hit, or very slightly overshot, their recruitment targets, but a few bucked the trend, overshooting their targets by up to half. At the bottom end of the scale, around 25 per cent of colleges failed to meet their targets, with a handful taking on only around 60 per cent of the expected students.
- Training targets: some 277,000 students obtained qualifications that count towards training targets. FEFC officials said the tables were designed to sit alongside exam league tables and college inspection reports to provide managers with clear comparisons across a range of colleges.
An FEFC spokeswoman challenged any other part of the educational world to provide such comprehensi ve information. The data would become more useful as it built up over time.
But officials have distanced themselves from the idea of producing a league table. The FEFC report includes detailed socio-economic data, as well as details of GCSE results in each area, in order to put college performanc e in perspective.
Work is continuing on the development of a value-added system, as well as a system for recording where students go after leaving college.
John Brennan, AOC policy director, said: "This is an important step to establish the efficiency of the sector. We welcome the publication of this data, which is far in excess of that in any comparable sector.
"The information from training and enterprise councils and schools is much more limited than this."
But college leaders warned that the data should be treated with caution - particularly measures of student achievement.
Ray Dowd, president of the Association of College Management, warned the published measure of student achievement took no account of people who enrolled on courses, but had little interest in obtaining a validated qualification.
He warned that those enrolled on courses to obtain a partial qualification could also skew the figures. But he welcomed the tables, saying they proved the FE sector's commitment to improving standards.
"This demonstrates quite clearly that the sector provides an enormous amount of disaggregated data provided by colleges. It also shows that we make the most significant contribution to national training targets."
Jenny Shackleton, principal of Wirral Metropolitan College, echoed his concerns about the performance measures.
Her college recorded an achievement rate of just over 29 per cent, although the tables note that that figure is an underestimate.
She said: "We have a low figure although we are not doing that badly. The problem is that we are so diverse and have such a big and diverse operation with so many different courses that we could not compile them.
"We are talking about hundreds of qualifications. If we have not had to count them in the past, we may not have been as precise as we may have been when the time comes."