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When back to basics pays off

Neil Merrick reports on a study which shows that skills training can improve stay-on rates. Overwhelming evidence has emerged from an official study to show that basic skills training at the start of college courses leads to a sharp reduction in drop-out rates.

A Basic Skills Agency study based on research in 20 colleges, to be published later this term, will show that extra support offered to students improves stay-on rates and can significantly improve their prospects on their chosen course.

All the colleges screen students to find out what help they need with skills such as reading, punctuation and maths. Alan Wells, director of the agency, said: "It shows basic skills support reduces drop-outs and increases outcomes at the end of the course."

There was little doubt, he said, that the closer attention to such skills assessment programmes was a factor in two recent developments: the rising number of adult returners to FE and the growth in less academically able students entering FE.

While few would argue against the benefits which accrue from such investment in assessment and basic training, many insist that the increased stay-on rates over the past decade have had more to do with the parlous state of the youth jobs market.

There has been little evidence to date which shows such a direct link - as the Basic Skills Agency research report will - between investment in early troubleshooting and later success.

"Colleges recognise that they are attracting a different audience, including people who have not done particularly well at school. There is a certain sense of a fresh start being made at college," said Mr Wells.

Other colleges such as West Hertfordshire, outside the 20 in the research programme, are also trying to quantify the effectiveness of skills support. One imperative is that they stand to lose cash if students drop-out.

Last year, West Herts surveyed 300 students who received extra help with numeracy and literacy following an initial skills assessment.

Nine out of ten said they would not have completed their course without the basic skills support. Jill Tattle, director of learning support, said: "We are convinced it helps with retention."

Many colleges assess students using a 30-minute Basic Skills Agency test, but West Herts has gone further, devising numeracy assessments based on the level of skill required in specific vocational areas. Hairdressing students, for example, must clearly understand ratios and percentages for mixing lotions and tints. "The language of the assessment needs to be geared to the course, " Mrs Tattle said.

While more than 90 per cent of colleges screen all full-time students, few part-timers are assessed for basic skills needs. The Basic Skills Agency work shows that it was not always appropriate to screen all part-timers, Mr Wells said.

Last year, learning support staff at West Herts assessed 1,000 full-time students and between 5,000 and 6,000 full-timers.

Students are recommended for assessment if they spend a significant amount of time at college, even though their course is officially part-time.

Part-time students who require support but cannot attend daytime workshops are offered a learning support tutor who works with them at the same time as their subject tutor.

"If you introduce them from the beginning of the course, many people find it beneficial," said Mrs Tattle.

Stafford College, which screens all full-timers except for students on higher education access courses, finds that up to one-third require basic skills support but only about 15 per cent take it up.

David Cockett, learning support co-ordinator, said the college had decided against making extra support compulsory for students with skills needs, although it had started to lean heavily on those who might struggle to complete their programme.

Merillie Vaughan-Huxley, a senior FEFC inspector, said the methods of assessment varied widely across the country. Some colleges for example used records of achievement.

Colleges were stung into action three years ago with the publication of the Audit Commission's Unfinished Business, which revealed how millions of pounds were wasted through drop-outs, she said.

"It's about getting the right match of students for courses. There has been a tremendous improvement during the past few years."

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