Staff in further education should not assume that those in danger of dropping out of college are just younger students.
A review of the research on "retention and achievement" in FE, which is intended to top the agenda in colleges this session, says there is an emphasis in the literature on younger students, reflecting the weight of concern with this group.
But a report from the research carried out by the Critical Thinking consultancy and the Scottish Further Education Unit (SFEU), states: "There is a general assumption that adult learners fare better than young people in FE, but worse in the HE sector. Adult learners may be overlooked in consequence.
"Yet there are concerns with this group too, in relation to basic skills, for example, and sensitivity does appear to make staff hesitant about interventions."
The report notes that young female learners seem to receive less attention than young males but adds: "There is some evidence that, at least in vocational areas, their retention and achievement may be more of a concern."
The research, commissioned by the Scottish Further Education Funding Council, found that there was no single approach to ensure fewer students left their course before completing it, because of the sheer diversity of colleges. But the researchers suggest that "express commitment by a college to a climate of improvement" will help to set the right tone. That means leadership from the top.
The report says colleges need more systematic analysis of how students are performing. "This has been identified as a persistent weakness in subject reviews," it comments. "There may be many reasons for this apparent reluctance to engage in such analysis, for example lack of staff development or lack of confidence in the data. It may be worthwhile exploring the reasons to inform strategies for development."
The study pinpoints the importance of more investment in the skills of staff, especially those in teaching and learning support, "the principal agents of success". Reports from HMIE say poor teaching is one of the factors underlying low completion and achievement rates.
The researchers believe, however, that this may be due to pressures on lecturers from their varied roles in administration, management, evaluation and guidance as well as teaching, and suggests this requires better staff development and support.
Despite the importance for colleges of holding on to as many students as they can, the authors of the research trawl urge a sense of proportion.
"Colleges need to be prepared to be accepting of students' views and to recognise that, in the student's interests, there are occasions when they would best let go," the report states.
As one study put it: "For many, dropping out was probably the best thing to be done at the time, a solution rather than a problem." Another cited by the report concluded: "It cannot be assumed that withdrawal always represents a failure of the system."