College efforts to cut high drop-out rates are being undermined by a flawed funding formula and Government demands for accountability, research by the London University Institute of Education suggests.
The obsession with "growth at all costs" is diverting resources to the bureaucracy of collecting large volumes of student data rather than identifying specific education and training needs.
Research based on interviews with staff and managers in five FE colleges in London and the south-east shows a high level of suspicion that management information systems (MIS) required by the Further Education Funding Council are largely inaccurate.
Technical and bureaucratic problems appear to have been made worse by cuts in course hours and the rise of "flexible learning" schemes.
The study complements a survey by the Further Education Development Agency. Students interviewed by FEDA suggested that those who drop out are more dissatisfied than current students with college services such as organisation of teaching, tutoring and support in "getting qualified."
It stressed, therefore, that problems of retention were within the power of colleges to resolve by developing and disseminating good practice. The Institute of Education research does not contradict this but suggests the problem is made worse by negative effects of the FEFC model and effects of new wider qualifications such as general national vocational qualifications. It also suggests that the stress on growth at all costs has undermined the development of a college-wide consensus on how to tackle drop-outs.
The FEFC funding approach makes colleges more aware of the need for more student guidance, but it appears to be undermining efforts to promote retention. This appears to be happening in three ways.
Student retention data has become the focus of disagreement and suspicion. Even in colleges with reputedly good MIS, staff are reluctant to accept the accuracy of centrally-generated data. Lecturer cynicism is exacerbated by the bureaucratic demands made on them. The funding methodology has caused colleges to concentrate on accountability rather than on using educational data at the student level.
The problems are not just technical and bureaucratic, they appear to be about power relations. There is a strong perception amongst many staff that data are "something that is done to you".
They constantly referred to data issues being "loaded" and "sensitive". It appears impossible to separate the issue of the legitimacy of data from the climate of industrial relations of recent years even in those colleges which did not have a protracted dispute over lecturer contracts.
A second major issue raised in the research relates to what has happened to vocational courses and qualifications. Colleges, in tune with the funding demands, have put much emphasis on initial guidance. But they have also cut hours for full-time vocational courses. Staff have longer contact time but it appears to be taken up with increased the bureaucracy of GNVQnational vocational qualification assessment.
Courses with lowest drop-out rates appear to be the higher level ones with clear vocational focus, a close relationship with the labour market, some selection, structured classes and a high degree of professional identity by a course team. Those most often cited were Nursery Nurse Education Board and some Engineering and Art Design Business and Technology Education Council National Diploma courses.
The lowest-retaining full-time courses appeared to be those at lower levels with a more generic focus, open access and with a multitude of core skill and assessment problems. GNVQ Intermediate was cited as an archetypal example.
Staff also cited the lack of vocational orientation in many students, the problem of too many students wanting to do A-levels with little chance of success and the fact that the college had aggressively marketed its provision. Drop-out problems were seen as a down-side of marketing success.
Another major concern, expressed by all staff interviewed, was the lack of student commitment to the college or courses under the new "mass flexible learning" model of FE.
There may be sentimentality for a bygone era in comments like "students are not what they used to be", that colleges were being treated as "parking lots" and that "we now expect that anyone can enter our courses". However, there appeared to something real in these comments as staff were reflecting on problems of forced growth and of lecturer professionalism.
Staff recognised that effective tutoring could help to promote retention, but they could not always agree on wider pedagogic issues. Some thought it was important to be "firmer" with students - particularly full-time 16 to 21-year-olds.
Emphasis on attendance, punctuality, running cohesive learning groups and supporting modular schemes with a strong team approach was seen to be effective with younger students. Many staff felt older learners would appreciate more flexibility.
But there was concern that courses often recruited both younger and older students with different priorities. The danger was that flexible courses would be interpreted by younger students as ones having few rules, and people coming and going. This could undermine the cohesion necessary.
Staff on A-level and GCSE courses often wanted more selection and fewer students, but continually felt the pressure to recruit. They pointed to the competitive environment and the fact that the college down the road - it was never them - might relax its entry criteria and take students they had turned away. Some felt if they argued for more selection that they might be branded as illiberal and not in favour of the "new FE" emphasis on recruitment and access.
These findings should produce alarm bells for those running the FE sector. All five colleges are being hampered in their efforts to tackle drop-out problems. It also appears that course retention rates are not getting any better. In fact, among younger full-time students, they may be getting worse. This trend is despite there being greater awareness amongst management and staff of the need to tackle the issue.
These findings of the first phase of research of this project point to the need to address wider system issues as well as focusing on college-based strategies.
Ken Spours is a researcher at the Post-16 Education Centre, London University Institute of Education