Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)|
WEDNESDAY 14 MARCH 2001
BICHARD, KCB AND
20. What about buildings, does that also come
out of capital fund?
(Professor David Melville) Within the capital fund
what the Funding Council does, and it has been able to have considerable
impact on the capital stock, is we provide loan support, and there
has been very large gearing. We have had about £1 billion
of investment into the FE sector as a result of gearing and what
the government has provided in loan support. Now that we have
a slightly more generous capital regime we provide one third of
the cost of capital projects that meet the criteria, and that
is applied over a three year period. The net result is that since
incorporation 26 per cent of all of the capital stock, all of
the floor area in further education, have been replaced or refurbished.
21. I now want to move on to the reasons why
students leave before completing their studies. There is some
very interesting stuff in part 2 of this Report about that, and
figures 6, 7 and 10 in particular in paragraph 22 all refer to
that. Can I ask about the 10 colleges with achievements rates
still below 50 per cent. That seems very low, and remarkably,
looking at Figure 6 in particular, there seems to be a huge variation
in the total of achievement rates. Some specialist colleges having
100 per cent achievement rate and some as low as about 26 per
cent or 27 cent, which is a huge variation. Can you tell me, first
of all, whether any of those ten colleges with achievement rates
below 50 per cent had achievement rates below 50 per cent four
years ago when the improvements began?
(Professor David Melville) Those figures refer to
1998-99 when there were 10 colleges in that category. Since then
four of those have been the subject of mergers. One of our policies
has been to encourage mergers where besides financial problems
there are quality problems and the college can gain by merging
with a better college. We have encouraged that and supported it.
The most recent figures are not available but my estimate is we
are now down to about five, at the most, who are in the below
50 per cent category. We are working closely with all of those
colleges in order to try and get them out of that. That is a very
small proportion, 1 per cent of the sector.
22. That is very useful information but not
actually the question I asked, which was, first of all, whether
four years earlier those 10 were also below 50 per cent.
(Professor David Melville) I would have to have notice
23. The importance of that question is that
if they were, and this was the period during which you were trying
to make improvements, it is significant that those failed to improve
during that period.
(Professor David Melville) Sorry I misunderstood your
question, were the 10 included in the 61? I believe that most
of them were. We could pick that out in detail. Obviously the
answer to the second part of your question is that some have proved
more intractable than others in terms of shifting, some had further
to travel. What I am certain of is that one or two in that list
have, in fact, now made significant improvements and are in excess
of 60 per cent in one or two cases.
24. 60 per cent is still a lot below 100 per
cent of the best. Do you have any feel why some are so much worse
(Professor David Melville) I think some of the reasons
are explored in the Report. One of the characteristics of colleges
that do well in this area is that they have a straightforward
and significant strategy associated with retention and achievement.
We have gradually shifted from a point where this was not a major
issue for colleges, where governors tended not to discuss the
whole business of quality and they tended to focus on buildings
and money, to one where we encourage all college governors to
have a quality committee, where they can receive constant reports.
There is a plan, if you like, and what we have also insisted on
is that colleges following an inspection have an action plan.
We have been able to support that from the standards fund and
we have required them to work with good colleges who know how
to do this sort of thing. There are a range of reasons and they
range from the mix of subjects, we have one or two cases like
that, to where you have small adult colleges with a large number
of adult part-time students where we know retention tends to be
an issue, to colleges that have a large number of students taking
basic skills and English as a second language course, where taking
the exam is not seen by the individual as a major measure of achievement.
It is often felt to be a detriment in being seen to pass an exam
in basic skills, particularly when your employer may become aware
(Sir Michael Bichard) I think we need to remind ourselves
sometimes that here we are talking about a sector which we hope
is going to provide learning opportunities for some of the people
who have not done well in the system up until that point and,
therefore, there is a greater risk that they will not achieve
and that some of them will drop out. That is not complacency.
What we do need to be careful of is that we do not send a message
to colleges that they should avoid taking some of the more difficult
students, because it might adversely affect their targets. Finally,
we do always need to remember that 80 per cent of these students
are mature students and, as Professor Melville was saying, sometimes
life does get in the way. Some people do not want to do the qualification,
they want to do the training, they want to improve their learning,
but they really do not want to sit an exam. We try and encourage
them to do that, although there are some people who will duck
out at that point.
25. I take that point. If that is a significant
factor you would not expect the differentiation between the best
and the worst, that ought to apply across the whole sector?
(Sir Michael Bichard) I accept that the variation
is too great. You also raise the issue about specialist colleges.
It is particularly difficult with a small, specialist college.
When you have a larger college, as in any organisation, you have
some swings and roundabouts and your strong performers, to some
extent, will disguise your weak performers, at least for a time,
while hopefully you will bring them up to a level. If you have
a small, specialist college going through difficulty the performance
will be very clearly poor and I think some of the lower performing
colleges will fall into that category.
26. Also some of the better performing colleges
are the specialist colleges. It is the variation that I do not
(Sir Michael Bichard) In a specialist college you
can have that variation more easily, it is more likely that you
will have that variation than in a large generalist college.
(Professor David Melville) Perhaps I can just illustrate
the point, generally the comment is that specialist colleges do
well, the ones we would be more familiar with, the agriculture
colleges are generally up at the top, and the art and design colleges.
The specialist colleges at the bottom tend to be adult specialist
colleges, what we call the specialist institutions that have a
particular mission to deal precisely with those difficult students
and, in fact, their cohorts are dominated by such students. One
has to say they are generally doing a good job and we are seeing
improvements in what they are doing.
27. You were saying that the colleges learned
from each other, I am delighted to hear that. You told them to
talk to other colleges who are doing better and get some ideas,
do you power them up or are they given specific colleges to talk
(Professor David Melville) What we attempted to do
is draw attention to colleges that have weaknesses in particular
areas and also when we fund a college that has been accredited
or are a beacon college we agree to fund their dissemination in
a particular area, it may be in basic skills, it may be in good
practice in retention. We would help the colleges to get in touch
with those colleges and publish what is going on, and so on.
28. I want to look for a moment at the reasons
the students give and the colleges give. There are some interesting
differences in paragraphs 2.7, 2.8 and 2.9 and in Figure 7 it
shows that most of the reasons recorded by the colleges for students
withdrawing are to do with funds, and yet paragraph 2.8 makes
it clear that 42 per cent of the students who left earlier complained
that the course was not as expected. I cannot see in Figure 7
anything very much to do with the course was not as expected,
unless that comes under "course related", which is the
fifth of the reasons give in Figure 7 and does not amount to more
than 10 per cent, which is far from 42 per cent. There is a clear
difference from what the colleges are saying and what the responsible
college unit found.
(Sir Michael Bichard) I do not think that is at all
surprising, the reality is that we still do not know enough about
why people do drop out or not complete their qualification. It
is not surprising because if you were talking to somebody from
the college they are likely to avoid saying that it is because
of something which is the fault of the college.
29. What you are saying is the employment job
figures in Figure 7 and, indeed, the whole of Figure 7, are fairly
meaningless because it is what the colleges are saying, and you
are saying what the colleges are saying is, it is inadequate data
because it is drawn up from an inadequate source.
(Sir Michael Bichard) I do not think I did say that.
I said we still do not know enough about why people do drop out,
but it would not be surprising if when they were speaking to somebody
from a college they gave reasons that did not appear to be a direct
attack on the college. One of the things that the Learning Skills
Council will be wanting to do is to find out more by having independent
exit surveys to find out why people do leave and provide them
with an opportunity to speak frankly about why they drop out.
30. Do you regard it as realistic that the real
reasons why students left in 42 per cent of cases was because
the course was not as expected, and in 38 per cent of the cases
it was because they were unhappy with the teaching. Are those
real reasons or are the students fooling you in saying that?
(Sir Michael Bichard) I have said a couple of times
already that I do not think we actually know. I think that a number
of people do leave because the course is not what they expected
and I think a number of people do leave because they are unhappy
with the teaching. That is why we are spending so much money to
try and improve the quality of the teaching. That is why we are
putting an emphasis on ensuring that students get good advice
at the start, they get good information and good induction and
they are helped in those early months in particular to ensure
they stay with the course. Whatever the precise percentages we
believe that these reasons are important reasons and we need to
do something about it.
31. What you seem to be saying is that you believe
Paragraph 2.8 rather than Figure 7, which I accept you are right
to do because it seems to me Figure 7 probably shows some pretty
odd data which is unreliable.
(Sir Michael Bichard) I have learned that it is always
better to be pessimistic and therefore respond to the most pessimistic
(Professor Melville) These are two different surveys
in which different questions were asked so a different range of
reasons were offered. Generally they are tick boxes and so one
would tend to get different answers. The reality is that students
leave for a variety of reasons. It is often a number of things
building up which might include personal circumstances as well
as the teaching and the possibility a job might be coming along.
32. Indeed, it is often more than one reason.
Can I ask therefore whether you are giving colleges advice that
they should not just look for one reason? In Paragraph 2.17 it
says that 60 per cent of college information systems permit only
one reason to be recorded.
(Professor Melville) One of the real values of this
Report is that it enables us to start to put a very strong focus
on how we improve retention, how we narrow that gap. I hope that
the Learning and Skills Council, which has a very specific remit
in this area, will have as much focus on retention as we have
had on achievement over the past few years and therefore offer
advice on appropriate questionnaires and collecting data and commissioning
research which I think is also going to be important in this area
because we do not understand, as Sir Michael Bichard has said,
precisely why students leave their courses.
33. Can I finally put to you two other what
I regard as potentially significant reasons for particularly adult
students in rural areas giving up on their courses, these two
are not mentioned here. One is the business of adult courses going
on in the evenings, often between seven and nine just at the sort
of time when a lot of people might be expecting to have an evening
meal, and they go along to colleges where very often there is
not any refreshment provision provided for them so they find it
very difficult to have an evening meal and have to put it off
or have it beforehand. And a second point is particularly in rural
areas there is often a huge lack of transport especially in the
evenings and somebody who is living in a village without their
own car may find is totally impossible to get into the local college
to carry out a course. How significant do you think those two
are and what are you doing about it?
(Professor Melville) I think you have hit on something
which is extremely important. It is about an overall shift of
how colleges view their students. The best colleges think of what
is convenient for their students, putting on programmes at the
time and the place they want, not expecting them to come from
rural areas into local towns but presenting courses in local pubs,
in community centres, and so on. That is number one. Secondly,
if you like, being more conscious of the demand side rather than
the supply side. We have established in our last few months what
we call a demand side group and that is about to report with some
recommendations for the future to help to make colleges more responsive
to students so we do not have the kind of situation that you describe.
I think it is very important and I do not believe we can achieve
what we are planning to achieve in lifelong learning without that
shift on the part of all colleges.
(Sir Michael Bichard) However much colleges do respond
by changing their time-tabling, and some of them have done and
many of them probably need to do, I think transport still will
remain an issue. It does not matter when you have the lecture,
although there are some more convenient times than others, there
are still problems with transport in certain areas around the
country. We are doing some research on that at the moment. It
is one of the reasons why we have increased Access funding up
to £103 million, and 10 per cent of students now have access
to that money and some of it is going on supporting them with
Chairman: Nigel Griffiths?
34. Good afternoon. I am interested to hear
that some colleges could do more to get prospective students on
the right courses and ensure that the college experience matches
the students' expectations by providing better pre-enrolment information.
I would have thought this was so critical if it was not harmonised
then at least the standards should be. What is the problem here?
(Professor Melville) Let me say, first of all, that
it is something that we have regarded right from the start as
being important and one of the things that was introduced in the
way colleges were funded was what we call entry units in the funding
system, so it was recognised that there are up-front costs in
recruiting students and giving them advice and that has been built
into the system. The second is it has been part of inspection
and the Inspectorate has reported on good practice in those areas.
The answer to your question of whether everybody does it is, as
with all things, we find some colleges are much better at it than
others. When we look at inspection grades as a whole, the broad
area of support for students is one that tends to produce the
best grades. We have seen great progress in this whole business
of advice and support. The Report quite rightly highlights that
we need to be reminded about this and I think that the changes
that are in place are going to help. First of all, we have the
Connexions Service which will be providing that kind of independent
advice and support for students from the age of 14. Secondly,
we are moving to putting the whole range of programmes on a similar
footing from the academic programmes, to the vocational programmes,
to modern apprenticeships and work-based programmes. The aim is
that there is even, appropriate advice so that students are able
to make the right choice having the information available to them.
(Sir Michael Bichard) It is not just the information,
it is the advice and support. It is quite possible to provide
a lot of information, indeed too much information, and that confuses
a lot of students. That is why the Connexions Service is so important.
It is why the investment we are making in pastoral support is
so important. We need to get people to get alongside students
who are making difficult decisions to help them through what is
inevitably going to be a maze of information.
35. Professor Melville mentioned the Connexions
Service that is due to start in about three weeks' time. Are you
on track to get it off to a flying start?
(Sir Michael Bichard) It is due to start in a number
of parts of the country in three weeks' time. We have got 13 pilots
in place already so it is going to be some time before that is
across the whole of the country. Yes, we are on target for that.
I visited one or two of the pilots recently and I think they are
extremely impressive. We are seeing the Careers Service and Youth
Service working together in a way they have never done before
to provide real support, not just learning support but support
for some of the young people we want to get into learning, so
I am very optimistic about the Connexions Service.
36. Have the pilots been looking at issues like
(Sir Michael Bichard) The pilots have and the colleges
have as well.
37. Reaching favourable conclusions?
(Sir Michael Bichard) It is still very early days
for anything connected with the Connexions Service but some colleges
have been involved sufficiently long now in buddy schemes and
support schemes to know they can have a real impact and to show
that they have a real impact.
38. What is the mechanism for disseminating
that sort of good practice by your Department and by you?
(Sir Michael Bichard) One of the ways of disseminating
good practice is through the Learning and Skills Development Agency
whose task it is to try and ensure that good practice across the
whole of the system is consistently applied. There are schemes
like the regional quality assurance scheme which ensures that
good practice is applied. The Learning and Skills Council will
have a very important role. The inspection process is another
weapon in the armoury. The 112 inspections of colleges last year
published on the web site is information about good practice available
for everyone to see. So there are a lot of opportunities now,
benchmarking data which we now have available in a form we have
never had before, a lot of opportunities for colleges if they
want to learn about good practice to find out about it.
39. And if they do not want to learn?
(Sir Michael Bichard) If they do not want to learn
I think there are sufficient pressures now in place in the systemthe
reviews I talked about that the Learning and Skills Council will
be carrying out, the benchmarking data, the inspection process
that is now rigorous, the new inspection process we are introducing.
There are enough pressures in the system to be able to identify
colleges that are not performing well.