Six neighbouring colleges are swapping competition for collaboration to try to stop students dropping out, writes Lucy Ward.
As the issue of student retention preoccupies principals across the country, the North Yorkshire colleges are uniting in a pioneering study of students who drop out.
The survey builds on the findings of research carried out last year at York College of Further and Higher Education, which uncovered severe financial problems, dissatisfaction with courses and lack of guidance as key reasons for students abandoning their studies.
The results of the wider study are likely to attract national interest as colleges under pressure to expand battle to keep numbers up and maintain funding.
The first York survey, focusing only on the 117 full-time students who dropped out within 10 weeks, was launched as part of a drive to examine concerns affecting the college and the sector as a whole.
Money worries emerged as the main factor - a trend already identified by individual colleges countrywide.
Helen Kenwright, coordinator of the project which was funded by the North Yorkshire training and enterprise council, discovered students struggling "in real poverty traps" and believing themselves failed by the system. With benefit calculations changing three times in the period of the study alone, college advisers were often as baffled as students by the latest rules.
Students forfeiting income support by choosing full-time Business and Technology Education Council courses or general national vocational qualifications sometimes overcame financial problems by switching to A-level evening classes. This allowed them to claim benefit but potentially led them towards an unsuitable qualification.
The findings also revealed unexpected flaws in the college's guidance system, which offered strong support early on but proved less adequate in the vulnerable period several weeks into a course.
A host of recommendations outlined in the report are being gradually put in place by York managers, beginning with improvements to attendance and sickness records which will now trigger an alert system, identifying students in danger of dropping out.
Those dissatisfied with courses will be encouraged to consider switching to a more suitable option rather than leaving for good, and a new programme of sports and social events is designed to help students feel "at home".
York will develop the study this year, as part of a broad project involving five more colleges. Each will carry out tailored research, ranging from building a profile of "likely leavers" to examining admissions procedures.
Debbie Thornton, York's associate principal, believes the work will contribute to the understanding of a problem affecting the entire FE sector. "All colleges have become concerned about retention, not only in funding terms - though a lot of money is going out over the year - but also in terms of personal and professional commitment.
"We have got six colleges and a TEC pooling funds and working together, which I think must be unique in FE. Now we want to exploit that cooperation."