All at sea and cast adrift?

7th December 2018 at 00:00
Every year, tens of thousands of college learners drop out within the first six weeks. And student leaders warn that the most vulnerable among them, such as those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are most likely to quit early. Are colleges doing enough to keep learners from floating away? Julia Belgutay investigates

The first weeks of a new college course are supposed to be exciting and challenging. This is a time when students are meant to set their sights on their bright new future and the career that lies ahead. But for thousands of them, this is all they will experience of college life. Every year, tens of thousands of students leave within the first six weeks, before their enrolment counts towards a college’s success rates and before the institution receives any funding for them. Often, there is little or no follow-up as to why they dropped out.

According to figures from the Association of Colleges, 35,740 students aged 16-19 left before that 42-day deadline in 2017-18 – almost 6 per cent of the total.”

Colleges insist that most of those who leave early head into what is known as a “positive destination” – another course, a job or an apprenticeship. But is that really the case? And why do we know so little about these invisible learners who drift out of education almost as soon as they have enrolled?

The NUS students’ union says that it is the most vulnerable students who are most at risk of missing out on “the opportunities they deserve”.

“There is a proportion that feel that the course is not for them, or they have a better opportunity elsewhere,” says president Shakira Martin. “But a lot of those students that leave are the most vulnerable. They are working-class students, disabled students, parents and carers. Colleges have to do more to support those students.”

At its national conference in March, the NUS passed a motion stating that funding and inspection frameworks “incentivised” colleges and individual tutors “to remove some students before they have been on courses for 42 days”. The incentive, the motion says, is “to protect their achievement rates”.

“Many students are removed from college within this timeframe and are denied an education,” it adds – warning that this is an approach that can “significantly and disproportionately disadvantage vulnerable students”.

“Students who are deemed to be quite troublesome or the ones who need extra support should be provided with such support, instead of being removed from their courses because that is the easier option,” the NUS motion adds.

Christina Donovan, a lecturer in education studies at Manchester Metropolitan University, has carried out research on the phenomenon of the six-week leaver; the study focuses on learners deemed to be “at risk”, as well as the relationship between perceptions of vulnerability and student withdrawal.

“Students who may be withdrawn from courses are called ‘at risk’ – often flagged up on internal monitoring systems and reports that are sent to senior management teams or governing bodies,” she explains. “They are at risk because someone at the college has decided that they, for whatever reason, may not complete their course.”

These assessments can consider issues such as attendance and performance, she says, but also broader factors of “vulnerability”.

“In effect, my study seemed to suggest that students [revealing] an aspect of their lives that makes them vulnerable can lead them to being labelled as ‘at risk’. Within the first six weeks of the academic term this is problematic, as tutors are often told to look out for signs that students may not complete in this period.”

This can, on occasion, lead to what Donovan describes as “subversive practices to support student retention”. But she argues that the underlying concept of vulnerable students being undesirable for colleges must be challenged robustly.

“The drive to identify areas of potential profit and loss leads to negative conceptualisations of students who may represent a ‘risk’ to the financial health of the organisation. Conflicting accounts of risk make explicit the difficulties presented to staff who work with so-called ‘vulnerable’ students. While recognising the wider contextual issues of their lives, staff are also duty-bound to safeguard the college’s interests,” she explains.

Verbal abuse from tutors

Education consultancy Chalkstream has also researched student drop-outs within the first six weeks. Aggregated data from nine colleges, collated over the past few years, shows that reasons include poor college communication, student physical and mental health challenges, financial problems, caring responsibilities, a change of mind about their desired career or a place being secured on another, preferred course.

When asked what they were doing now, just over half of leavers (52 per cent) said they were studying elsewhere, while 27 per cent said they were working either full- or part-time. However, one in 10 said they were unemployed, and the same proportion were only willing to admit that they were doing “something else”. Views on whether their college could have done more to support them and encourage them to stay are finely balanced, with 57 per cent saying “no”, and 43 per cent feeling more could have been done.

“Some of these problems can’t be addressed by a college; some can,” says Ben Verinder, founder and managing director of Chalkstream. “We have spoken to students who were verbally abused by a tutor in their first day in class (and every day after, before they gave up); others were enrolled in the wrong course and ignored when they complained. It’s hard for a college to hear about these kinds of issues, but it is vital they are addressed.”

In some cases, however, colleges go all-out to prevent students from dropping out at this early stage. Some have redeployed or retrained staff to focus on this problem, Verinder says, while others have introduced systems to ensure that students with severe personal challenges are given the extra support that makes the world of difference to them. One college introduced simple changes to its induction process to ensure students who didn’t like their course understood they were able to switch to another. This simple change led to hundreds more students staying on.

“When colleges crack these kinds of problems – introducing specialist support for young people at risk of homelessness or tracking attendance as an early warning system for students who might be struggling, and intervening decisively to help them – it’s the very best of FE,” says Verinder.

Kirsti Lord, deputy chief executive at the Association of Colleges, also believes that there is plenty of good practice on show. “Anecdotally, I have seen the number of leavers [in some colleges] halve from one year to the next due to more rigorous advice and guidance from the point of application through to induction,” she says. “The power of [information, advice and guidance] can’t be overestimated.

“Colleges work hard to ensure that all students have access to learning, and for those declaring a learning difficulty, a disability or a mental health issue, they will assess the student before they start to ensure their needs are met in and out of the classroom. Should tutors or student support have a concern that there may be an undeclared support issue, they’ll talk to that student to see how they can help.”

Financial support is sometimes also targeted at the students most vulnerable to quitting.

Financial incentive

But what’s in it for colleges? John Widdowson, principal of New College Durham, admits that while student welfare is at the heart of what the college does, part of the motivation is financial. Two years ago, his college had a drop-out rate of about 10 per cent. Those 250 students who left in the first 42 days of the 2016-17 academic year equated to about £1 million of lost funding. And with recruitment always a challenge for colleges, retaining those who have already signed up is far easier than having to start the process again from scratch. New College Durham’s plans seem to be bearing fruit. In 2017, following the introduction of a robust programme of measures to track, monitor and support students, the drop-out rate reduced to 6 per cent. This year, it further decreased to 5.5 per cent.

So what did the college do to achieve this? Vice-principal Mo Dixon says the approach starts when students first make contact with the college: “We are just in constant contact with them. Between the initial contact and when they enrol, we keep in contact with them with things like newsletters and Christmas cards. Over the summer, we do what we call ‘keeping-warm activities’, which can be subject-specific, or focus on things like resilience or the transition to college.”

The college also has a “risk register”. “We look at things like, do they have a part-time job? Did they come from a previous course where there were issues with attendance? Or do they have care responsibilities” says Dixon. This allows the college’s support team to react quickly if any students are “starting to wobble”. Those learners might get student support, or receive extra careers advice in case they end up needing to be referred to alternative courses and providers.

Where students do drop out within the first six weeks, Widdowson says there are a number of reasons. It could be that they have decided to start an apprenticeship elsewhere; it could be that there are problems with their attitude or behaviour; or it could even be down to an individual simply “not being ready for the college environment”.

While some colleges are making an effort to retain their “at risk” learners, for Donovan the issue “first and foremost stems from a flaw in government funding methodology”. “Lagged funding and payment upon retention and achievement drives these practices,” she says. “The scarcity and anxiety around funding in FE is an important driver of this kind of behaviour within institutions.”

She adds: “Practitioners are not blind to their obligation to support vulnerable learners, but policy restricts the extent to which colleges can support students who are at risk of disengaging with their studies.”

This issue was also picked up on in the NUS motion earlier this year, which stressed that colleges should not “be systemically incentivised or put under pressure to cherry-pick students for course acceptance or to remove students from courses that deserve an opportunity to grow and succeed”.

A Department for Education spokesperson disagrees that funding rules were forcing colleges to choose funding over student welfare, stating that “most students successfully complete their 16-19 study programmes.

They add: “We do not fund providers for students who leave a course before they reach 42 days, as to do so would reward those providers where lots of students leave their course early and [would] be poor value for public funding.

“It is vital that everything is done to place students on the most appropriate programme to avoid disrupting their education, but it is only fair that students be allowed to leave that course early if it isn’t right for them.”

For NUS president Martin, a new mindset is needed across the sector to address the issue of six-week leavers. “We have to think about how we support those learners when they are in college. We need to empower college leaders and senior managers to talk about the impact of getting more funding for those students,” she says.

So while there is plenty that colleges can do to boost the retention of students after 42 days, this activity is inevitably limited by the funding available. And the University and College Union takes the view that just enrolling a student should not be the end goal – for colleges or government.

“It is really disappointing when students drop out so early on,” says head of policy and campaigns, Matt Waddup. “Students need decent independent career advice so the choices they make are the ones that best allow them to fulfil their potential. There also needs to be decent support for students when they are at college. The work doesn’t stop when a student walks through the doors at a college, and these areas need proper funding from government, too.”

Julia Belgutay is deputy FE editor for Tes

Most leavers ‘are in positive destinations’

The number of 42-day leavers has remained static at Trafford College in recent years, says principal Lesley Davies. The college commissions an independent survey of those students who leave in the first six weeks of each academic year.

Last year, the majority said they had taken up courses or employment opportunities elsewhere, says Davies.

“In some cases, particularly for students applying to A-level courses, we are the insurance,” she explains.

“Over three-quarters of our leavers went into positive destinations. In excess of 50 per cent went into employment or did an apprenticeship.

“Of the others, some took a gap year and some went to another college. For a small number, it was down to personal reasons. For me, that is a really good news story.”

Davies stresses that it is more important that students end up in the most suitable course for them than that they study at her college. “If they find an apprenticeship – fantastic,” she adds.

“The ones we worry about are the ones that don’t go into positive destinations so we contact them again.

“We follow up and ask them if they want to come back in.”

Davies says the college has an “early warning” system in place that allows course tutors to flag up any students they feel are struggling: “We ask, ‘Are they on the right course?’ and ‘Can we refer them to advice and guidance to see if they are in the right place?’”

Why do students drop out?

The main reasons why students quit college within the first six weeks, according to research by Chalkstream, are listed below (ranked according to the most commonly cited reason):

* Course-related reasons

* Work too hard/too much work

* Lack of support from the college

* Obtained an apprenticeship

* Illness

* Financial reasons/wanted to earn money

* Poor attendance

* Problems at home

* “Not my choice”

* Problems with other students (including bullying)

* Distance to college

* Offered a good job

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