Neil Merrick on how colleges are using past student mistakes to help the current intake
When one student at Farnborough Sixth Form College said she had been offered a place at university, teachers thought the course could be disastrous.
They remembered an ex-student, who took the course two years before, and had dropped out.
The Hampshire college was able to put the two in touch, so the current student could discover the pros and cons.
Farnborough staff have been collecting data on the destinations of college leavers for more than 20 years - but it is only since incorporation that the data has been held centrally by registrar David Woodward.
Until last year the information was kept on index cards but now it is computerised. This means it is possible to break data down by subject or university.
All FE colleges must send details of the destinations of full- and part-time students to the Department for Education and Employment and include them in returns to the Further Education Funding Council.
But Farnborough teachers recognise that the data can be most valuable to the college. It can highlight the achievements of former students. Sometimes it is used to find work experience placements by contacting ex-students working for local employers. "We don't collect it just because the FEFC tells us that we should," said Mr Woodward.
Tutors complete forms, including students intended destinations, by the end of May. These are checked against data supplied by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service in October. Ex-students who have not gone on to HE are phoned to see if they have found a job or are studying elsewhere.
The college only fails to contact about 20 of around 650 students who complete courses each year.
A survey carried out by FEFC inspectors last year said most colleges needed to be more efficient in gathering and analysing information about student destinations. But recent evidence suggests this is improving. About a third of college inspection reports now include tables showing the destinations of students who completed courses during the past 12 months.
"It's part of a general trend whereby colleges can give more information about their students than they could a few years ago," said senior FEFC inspector Mark Griffiths. The task is far simpler for sixth-form colleges, where the majority of students are full-time 16 to 19-year-olds, than for larger FE colleges with a high percentage of part-time adults.
A DFEE spokeswoman said many colleges struggled to provide information about part-time students. Shrewsbury Sixth Form College, which sends students a card with their exam results each August, normally only fails to contact a handful of its 300 or more leavers.
Last year 10 per cent of college leavers went into jobs - double the number in each of the previous two years. "We are able to change our guidance to reflect the fact that more students are going into employment," said careers adviser Sarah Jarrett.
Wulfrun College in Wolverhampton is one of nine West Midlands colleges taking part in a project with training and enterprise councils looking at methods of gathering student destination data. FE programmes will be evaluated against economic needs and each college will be able to compare its data with averages in the region.
Wulfrun hands students a questionnaire at the end of their course and later sends out a letter requesting information on their actual destination. The college usually reaches about three-quarters of its 1,000 full-time leavers.
Susan Bradley, director of quality and marketing, admitted that tracing part-time students is more difficult. "Quite a lot of them are released by their company and come back again the following year," she said.
Last year's White Paper on 14 to 19 education and training Learning to Compete said the destination of students who had completed courses should be a performance indicator for colleges. But an FEFC spokeswoman said no decision would be taken to introduce a new measure without consulting colleges.
Malcolm Bell, principal of North West Kent College of Technology, said student destination figures were not an effective way of measuring one college against another because they drew students with contrasting academic ambitions. "It's information which is more useful within the institution than as an objective measure of performance," he said.
More than a third of students leaving North West Kent go straight into jobs, while 10 per cent go to university. Mr Bell said the data the college collects through a telephone survey each autumn allows teachers to assess the effectiveness of its courses while staff can expand their pastoral service to ex-students.
"If someone has not found a job or been offered a place in further or higher education, we invite them back for an interview," he said. "It's positive marketing which gives them an opportunity to find out if there is anything more the college can do for them."