Study reveals that nearly two-thirds of extra FE enrolments are female and on course to succeed. Joseph Lee reports
Female students are responsible for 80 per cent of the growth in student numbers in the past 10 years, says a government report.
For every extra male student in FE since 1996, there have been more than three women. A total of 60 per cent of students are now female.
There are more than 4 million students in FE, a growth of 20 per cent in eight years. Most of the new students are adults and part-timers. The study also shows women are more likely to complete their courses successfully.
Jo Salmon, women's officer for the National Union of Students, said: "We know many older women enter further and higher education later in life because of cultural attitudes that existed when they were younger. It is encouraging to see that many are accessing FE as mature students."
She said inequalities in subject choice should be addressed, with science and engineering subjects, which often lead to more lucrative jobs, largely dominated by men.
The figures were revealed as part of the Government's Success for All plan for FE. The report, just published, aims to provide the evidence base for plans to improve the quality of the FE sector.
The study found that FE colleges were keeping pace with school sixth forms and sixth-form colleges, which have a 96 per cent pass rate at A-level; in FE colleges the rate is 93 per cent even though some of their students have worse previous results.
The increased success rate is due to better exam and coursework performance because drop-out rates have not reduced, the report says. The introduction of AS-levels gave a 12 per cent boost to the numbers who successfully completed their A-levels.
Long vocational courses, in which success rates are 59 per cent - with about a quarter of students dropping out - are seen as key to continuing improvements. Targets for success rates in all subjects have been met two years early.
Despite dramatic improvement by some colleges, the gap between the best and worst performers has not narrowed significantly. The report found the biggest increase in student numbers was in short courses, which have grown by 50 per cent since 1996.
Academic and higher-level vocational course numbers have fallen by up to 15 per cent, but long vocational courses make up about three-quarters of FE college work.
Half of teaching time in FE colleges is for teenagers, but the overall number of hours taught has fallen, despite a rise in the number of students and the number of qualifications taken.
The report says funding cuts in the late 1990s may be to blame.
It says FE has been successful in attracting students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and from ethnic minorities. In FE colleges, 41 per cent of teenagers are from the bottom three social and economic groups, compared with 31 per cent in sixth-form colleges and 22 per cent in school sixth forms.
Ethnic-minority students make up at least 14 per cent of students, compared with 8 per cent of the general population.
Some minorities are less likely to gain qualifications, it found, with successful course-completion rates of 57 per cent for black Caribbean students, compared with 69 per cent of white students.
The report also notes that there is no evidence yet on certain key questions, such as whether FE helps people to get better jobs or encourages them to take more qualifications.