Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)|
WEDNESDAY 14 MARCH 2001
BICHARD, KCB AND
1. This afternoon we are considering the Comptroller
and Auditor General's Report on improving student performance
in English further education colleges. I would like to start by
welcoming our two witnesses, Sir Michael Bichard, for his last
outing before us
(Sir Michael Bichard) Unless I am back
in another guise.
2. That is possible. And Professor David Melville,
Chief Executive of the Further Education Funding Council. Both
of you are attending your last hearings in your current roles
although we look forward to seeing you in another capacity. You
are both familiar with the procedure so I will go straight into
the first question which relates to Paragraph 1.4, which notes
that the Government has invested an extra £725 million in
further education in 1999-2000 and in 2000-01, linked to raising
standards and improving retention and achievement. When can we
expect to see the results working through? The answer "after
we have retired" is not acceptable!
(Sir Michael Bichard) I think the answer is that we
are already seeing some of the benefits of the recent investment
feeding through and I think although this Report is about how
we can improve retention and achievement, the point needs to be
made that there have been improvements, particularly with achievement,
and we have maintained numbers on retention in the face of increased
participation. We are making additional investment in things like
the quality of teaching, in the mandatory qualification for teachers,
in the new inspection process, in providing Access monies to support
students from particularly deprived communities who are suffering
real problems which, as this Report points out, is likely to make
it more likely they do drop out or do not achieve. We cannot expect
that investment to produce results immediately but I think we
ought to be able to see improvements within 18 months. Equally
the investment in the Connexions Service and the support that
that should provide to students in making the decisions on what
courses they go to, all of that I think ought to produce results
3. I am sure others will come back on that.
Let me pick up on one aspect of this. How much of the improvement
required to meet the National Learning Targets do you expect to
get from the further education sector? Based on progress so far,
what are the prospects for meeting these targets?
(Sir Michael Bichard) The two targets where we have
got difficulties are on level 2 and level 3. The vast majority
of the other targets I am very confident that we will achieve.
I am not so confident about those two, partly because the current
state of the labour market means that people do have a real choice
as to whether or not they go into work and we know that some students
are going into work and not continuing their studies and one of
the things that the FEFC and Professor Melville have been trying
to do is to encourage employers to help people finish their course
of study. I cannot give you a definitive answer on levels 2 and
3, but I am quite prepared to accept that those we are looking
at are stretching. We need to remember however that since 1996
4. Is "stretching" a euphemism for
(Sir Michael Bichard) It is like "challenge"!
We have not got last year's results yet and I will reserve judgment
until then but I did want to make the point that since 1996, in
level 2 we have seen a 6 per cent improvement and in level 3 an
8 per cent improvement, so although achieving the national targets
may prove to be quite difficult in those two areas that is not
to say that we have not achieved quite a lot in the last four
5. Again, others may come back on that. Let
me move to Figure 15 on Page 33 and Appendix 4, which show that
there are all sorts of problems with measuring performance in
the current sector. Yet the responsibilities of the Learning and
Skills Council will grow to cover over 5,000 organisations. How
certain are you that the new Council will be able to assure itself
about the quality of education and performance in a much larger
(Sir Michael Bichard) I am obviously very confident
about the Learning and Skills Council, although again we cannot
point to its obvious success. One of the things the Learning and
Skills Council will be able to do is to apply rigorous review
at a local level. We are talking about colleges having mandatory
self-assessment with development plans, we are talking about local
Learning and Skills Councils reviewing on a four-monthly basis
how providers are doing. I think there will be a very close monitoring
of providers by the Learning and Skills Councils and I am confident
that that will have an impact.
6. I was looking at Paragraph 5.10 in the context
of all this. It is phrased quite nicely but what it really says
is that 50 per cent are doing rather less well than good. Remembering
my own school reports "satisfactory" was a euphemism
for "unsatisfactory". Can you comment on that?
(Sir Michael Bichard) This is interesting because
this morning I asked about that figure which rather worried me
and I was told that this was partly because the Inspector was
being even more rigorous now than was the case before. Professor
Melville has just whispered to me that it is a wrong figure which
helps me greatly. I understand it should be 62 per cent and not
50 per cent. If that is the case it is still a slight reduction
but it is not as dramatic a figure as in the Report. I would have
to seek advice.
7. You signed off this Report, gentlemen, so
it should not be wrong.
(Professor Melville) It is perhaps the one error that
we have spotted so far that we did not spot before.
8. What is the standard on arithmetic?
(Professor Melville) If it is helpful I can give you
just by way of amelioration the figure for 2001 that will go in
there, and it is 64 per cent. I think it indicates that these
figures are more or less sticking.
9. That is "good" or better?
(Professor Melville) At the "good" or "outstanding"
10. It still leaves a chunk.
(Professor Melville) That is right.
11. It is still merely satisfactory. As I say,
casting my mind back to my own school report, I think I got a
hiding for "satisfactory".
(Professor Melville) We have three categories at that
point, "satisfactory", "good" and "outstanding",
so it is the ones above "satisfactory".
12. Finally before I turn to Professor Melville,
Paragraph 2.24 really relates to a point you raised earlier, and
notes that students that enter further education under widening
participation initiatives do not do as well. In view of this,
to what extent are your objectives of improving achievement rates,
at the same time as widening participation rates, consistent and
achievable? It is a very important aspect of Government policy
(Sir Michael Bichard) The reality is that we have
been successful. We have raised participation by something like
70 per cent in recent years and we have maintained levels of retention
and we have improved levels of achievement. Even until this point
we have been successful. Back to your very first question, the
investment that we are now making in increased Access support,
paying child care, Access support on residential and transport
issues, the work that we are doing with education maintenance
allowances, again providing support to students, the work that
we are doing through the new Connexions Service which will begin
to roll out from April
13. Sure, that is all in the right direction
but what worries me about thisand this is a very important
issue hereis that you have got quite a significant variation
in performance, have you not?
(Sir Michael Bichard) Yes.
14. Some colleges do rather well in what would
normally be considered poor areasfor example Knowsleyand
others do not. What are you doing about that? That is the thing
that worries me. I know you are putting money in but how will
(Sir Michael Bichard) The bottom line is that the
quality of teaching and the quality of management and leadership
within our colleges has a huge impact upon achievement and retention
and we are investing very large sums of money to improve the quality
of teaching. We are looking at new pay arrangements that will
reward high-calibre teachers and keep them in the FE college rather
than putting them into management. I think that this will have
a really significant effect on the figures. They are too wide,
you are absolutely right, the variation at the moment is too great.
What this Report does is to produce some very good examples of
good practice. Most of the things that need to be done in all
colleges are being done in some colleges alreadymonitoring
performance, monitoring attendance, targeting pupils, all of this
is being done. What we need to try and do, as with any distributary
system, is make sure it is done consistently across the system.
15. Others I am sure will come back on that,
it is such a central area. Let me turn to Professor Melville.
Paragraph 2.21 is the first issue. It shows that overall student
success rates are only 56 per cent for 16-18 year olds and 51
per cent for older students. Why are success rates so low, and
what further steps are you taking or are needed to ensure that
further education meets its share of the Government's national
(Professor Melville) It is clear in the Report, let
me stress this, that the success rate refers to qualifications
and not to student numbers. If I can explain what that does to
achievement rates. For example, a student who takes three A-levels
who also might take a computing course on the side may not pass
the computing course, or choose not to take it because of the
pressure of exams, produces an achievement figure of only three
out of four and therefore 75 per cent, so some of these success
rates are produced by what we would call a depression of achievement
16. It is dealt with in a number of figures.
Paragraphs 2.3 and 2.22 and Figure 3 on Page 9 and Appendix 1
show that retention and achievement rates for full-time students
vary significantly (between 33 and 98 per cent on achievement
rates alone). Again, this is wide variation and that does tend
to say to me that there are some poor standards in some places.
(Professor Melville) And that is absolutely right.
The most unacceptable, going back to your earlier question, is
the range. As the Permanent Secretary says, there is good practice
of this kind somewhere in the system, and one of the things that
we have been doing since we have had the Standards Fund is giving
colleges that do well in particular areasand we have had
some focusing on retention and achievement (Knowsley is a notable
example you have mentioned)funds to disseminate good practice
to help other colleges to improve. We have had a specific focus,
noted well in the Report, on those colleges who have below 50
per cent achievement. We felt that was totally unacceptable and
we needed to focus on those. The number has gone down from 60
to 10 in the latest Report,
but our understanding is now that is probably round about five
colleges below 50 per cent. So it is a specific focus on one end
while levering up the whole, and we are seeing achievement going
up steadily, and that is a success story from the Standards Fund
and the approach we have been taking in dealing with these outliers.
Chairman: That is interesting. I am sure again
others will want to come back on that. Let's open it up and go
to Mr David Rendel.
17. Good afternoon, gentlemen. The first question
I have picks up on what the Chairman asked about at the beginning,
the investment of the 725 million. I think, Mr Bichard, you mentioned
inspection, teachers and payment towards deprived students as
being particular ways in which this money was being invested.
Unless I failed to hear you properly, you did not mention the
provision of better equipment in the colleges. Is that not a significant
factor? If it is not should it not be?
(Sir Michael Bichard) I think it should be, particularly
with ICT equipment. I think I normally answer at too great a length,
so it is difficult to cover everything in an answer, certainly
equipment, resources and people are the keys to success.
18. Do you know how much of that 725 has been
invested in equipment?
(Professor David Melville) What has happened since
1997 is the reintroduction of the capital line,
which now stands at about £100 million. We have an overall
programme related to IT that is on top of that, and that stands
at about £75 million.
19. Are you talking about 175 million out of
(Professor David Melville) I think I can give you
the precise figure in a note.
1 Note by Witness: The figure has decreased
from 61 to 10 in the latest Report. Back
Note by Witness: The reintroduction of the capital line,
occurred since 1999, not 1997 as stated. Back
Note: See Evidence, Appendix 1, page 21 (PAC 00-01/165). Back