Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)



  60. I did not say that it was in decline.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) It is improving and it will continue to improve.

  61. Let us move on to page 9, Figure 3. It is the initiatives that have been made by the Government. No one can accuse the Government of being complacent about further education because they realised four years ago that something desperately needed to be done. We can see from the chart here that there have been a considerable number of initiatives over the last four years. Tell me which of those have been very successful, those that have been successful and those that have not been so successful?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I think the Standards Fund, which has provided increasing levels of resource to develop teachers, to improve quality of management and leadership in colleges has been successful; I think the Accredited Colleges Scheme has been successful, and we now have 50 odd colleges accredited which have been successful; the beacon college scheme, we have 15 colleges that are now beacon colleges that have been successful in exchanging good practice; the increase of expenditure on Access Funds for transport, for residential student support has been successful; the introduction of the child care support fund, on which we are spending £25 million this year, has been successful, colleges are now receiving somewhere between £30,000 and £90,000 each for child care support, most of them have creches and individuals are receiving something like £1,300 a year for child care support, that has been successful; the work we are doing on introducing the Connexion Service; the increased resource and the better targeting of the Career Service; the inspection process that we have introduced has been successful and is contributing to improve standards; the area-wide inspections that we have introduced over the last 12 months, which look at all places in learning and education in particular areas, has been successful in looking at how coherent and coordinated that is; the introduction of mandatory self-assessments, action plans that follow up those self-assessments and follow up poor inspections reports they have been successful; the initial indications are that education maintenance allowances, which are now reaching 60,000 young people, have been successful in increasing participation, in some cases 43 per cent up to 49 per cent. All of those have been successful, and I could go on. What has not been successful I will leave to Professor Melville!
  (Professor Melville) I cannot think of a single thing!

  62. That is very convenient because there is nothing to come back on there. It has all been a huge success so we can expect, if that is the case, the figures to improve over the next few years?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I think we can. I do not deny the fact that we have had cause for serious concern about the FE sector over the last 10 years. In many respects it has been seen as the poor relation. I am afraid in the wider society we inhabit it still is seen as the poor relation. But we are getting to grips with those problems and we are not prepared to accept poor teaching quality or provision in any college in this country.

  63. Let us move on to Part 4 which is on Page 19 and in particular to Paragraph 4.2, and in this particular paragraph we are told why some students leave or fail. I have spent the first 10 minutes of my allocation being critical of the DfEE and the FEFC and the standard of colleges, but now let us look at the students' record. In this paragraph, as I say, we are told some of the reasons why they fail or why they do not do very well and why they have non-achievement or non-completion. I read these reasons and I was not very impressed by them, I must admit, because it seems to confirm that in many respects many students should not be there in the first place, if that is the case, because if they do not attend and they are not motivated, and they are disaffected, and they get behind with their assignments, and they find it difficult to settle on the course, etcetera, etcetera, why are they there in the first place?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I do not think that we can just ignore the learning needs of large numbers of people who have had a bad experience of education in the past, who have not performed well in the past, who are not particularly well-motivated. Our task—and it is important for our economic success—is to draw these people into learning. This Report surely is about how we do that and provide them with the support to ensure that they do continue to learn and become more motivated. That is about getting on the right course and it is about the feeling they are having some success. I do not think we can write off large numbers of people as just being too difficult.

  64. I absolutely agree with you but I am being a little bit of a devil's advocate here. You could say that some students are wasting their own time, wasting the colleges' time, and wasting valuable resources. Would that be a valid criticism? Is it worthwhile at the end of the day?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) If you go round the colleges of this country you will find countless inspiring examples of people who have failed in the system before who have been brought out of themselves and who have developed as individuals and who have become much more competitive as individuals in the economy. You cannot spot these people at the outset and you cannot spot the people who really are completely hopeless cases. Our task is to draw people in and support them to succeed.

  65. How many resources would you say are used to follow up cases such as these? Is it cost-effective?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) You can identify the things like the Access Fund I have talked about. You can look at the additional money we are putting into pastoral services through the Connexions Service, £6 million there, another £9 million to pay teachers to provide support for students who are facing these kinds of difficulties. Those are the kinds of sums that are going into this task.

  66. What would be the maximum sort of success you would expect in the situation we have here for colleges to be able to get students to fully perform?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) You have got to look at the retention and achievement figures. We have seen a 70 per cent increase in participation so we are now drawing in some of the most difficult people. We have maintained retention at about 85 per cent and we have improved achievement from 69 per cent[4] up to well over 70 per cent, so I think we are actually succeeding with a number of the people that you are talking about—not all of them but we cannot give up on them either because this is about lifelong learning and we are going to have to consistently come back to them.

  67. Okay. It says here that the overall success rates are something like 56 per cent for 16-18 year olds and 51 per cent for older students. They are pretty depressing figures, are they not?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) They are not good enough, no.

  68. Is it not inevitable that if you are forcing youngsters into further education that you are going to get statistics like this?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I think that is the point I have been making. You are dealing with some of the most difficult people so it is all the more difficult to get those statistics up, but we will get them up.
  (Professor Melville) It is voluntary, people make choices to leave as well. A lot of these students are adults who choose to come and go.

  69. The £750 million that the Government has given to improve standards, etcetera, does this change the funding arrangements for further education? The complaint that I have always had about the funding of further education is that it is based on bottoms on seats and unless you had bottoms on seats you did not get enough money. What is the situation now? Is it exactly the same?
  (Professor Melville) There are three categories in the £750 million. There is one chunk of money that stems the reduction in the unit of resource, so there was very specifically more money per student than there had been in the past. Some of that money did do some of the things you describe. The basic system is related to the numbers of students, you are right there. But, in addition, we have two big extra funds. One was the Standards Fund which is not related to bottoms on seats, it is related to need. The third one, which Mr Leigh drew out, is to do with capital and the colleges can apply for funding for projects for capital purposes.

  Mr Steinberg: I will pack it in there.

  Chairman: Mr Edward Leigh?

Mr Leigh

  70. Can you tell me a bit about tuition fees, grants, and all the rest of it, and what impact that has on retention rates? I am familiar with universities but not so familiar with colleges of further education.
  (Professor Melville) The situation is that tuition fees are paid by statute for full-time 16-19 year old students so they do not have to pay. Adults will generally make some contribution towards the cost of their course unless they are in various categories, for example, unemployed, unwaged, or undertaking basic skills programmes. We make a large number of exceptions for those who are felt not able to pay.

  71. Has there been any change in the last five years in the structure of the contribution students are supposed to make or is any change envisaged?
  (Professor Melville) In broad terms, no. Tuition fees are around about 25 per cent of the cost of the programme. For courses that are entirely for leisure purposes then colleges have tended to charge what might be the going rate for that course. There has been an increase in those kinds of courses as there has been more demand for them.

  72. I want to return to this point, I know it has been mentioned before, in Paragraph 4.11 that the colleges found that many students who later left college could predict their own non-completion and then, going back to Paragraph 2.12, many students still feel they are given poor quality or insufficient information when choosing the course. I know that you said that there have been many inspiring stories of people who have been badly taught or under-motivated who come good later on in life, but it just strikes me that there is a bit of a smell of stuffing students into these colleges at the moment and if you had better aptitude tests and deeper interviews which try to tease out people's motivation, you might increase your retention rate.
  (Professor Melville) I think it is something that the Report makes quite clear and I think it is something that is being followed up next year. £4.5 million is being put into providing extra staff for these very purposes, counselling, the kind of support that is needed, advice, and also another £4.5 million to develop programmes for this particular purpose.

  73. Are you going to move then more in the direction of having proper aptitude tests and actually being prepared on more occasions to say, "No, you simply do not have the commitment or aptitude for this course or perhaps any course"?
  (Professor Melville) That is certainly something we have had in our guidance for some time. We do not regard it as appropriate for colleges to take students cynically onto a programme—

  74. Is it not in the colleges' interest to take them on in order to fill chairs?
  (Professor Melville) They get very little benefit from a student that is taken on who then leaves because we have a census three times a year and they put a huge amount of effort into those students very often and then they go. So the funding system does not, contrary to what you might be suggesting, encourage that process. What it encourages is that a college recruits students that it can retain throughout the period and by having some achievement funding encourages them to take them right through to achieving the qualifications.

  75. I am not sure I understand that. You keep a check on what is going on, so if the student clearly does not have the right aptitude or commitment at the start of the course and the college still takes them on, the college will in some way which I do not quite understand be penalised when inevitably he drops out of the course. I do not understand that.
  (Professor Melville) We have a census date three times a year and the college has to return the number of students. Those returns are ultimately audited and if that student is not there at the end of the first census period the funding stops, and after the second and so on. So the funding is not made available for a student who has dropped out.

  76. If I am running one of these colleges, I am obviously in serious trouble if I am not filling enough places. I am not going to be doing very well or be very popular if I turn too many people away; contrary to what you say, I am sure that must be right. There must be an incentive. Give me a feel for how competitive these places are, how many people are queuing to get into some of these places. I do not know but I suspect that the queue may not be very long.
  (Professor Melville) There are three forces at work. One, as you quite rightly say, is that colleges do need to meet their targets. I would defend that. We would not have had expansion of further education under both governments if we had not incentivised that financially with the colleges. I think that has worked and it has been positive. I think the other force is as well as getting the students they need to retain them otherwise the funding disappears. The third is the publication of data like this. This is name and shame stuff. This data is actually published against the names of colleges. No college wishes to appear in the local press with retention and achievement rates at a low level. I think the pressure is there. You asked me to give you a feeling. It very much depends, we have sixth form colleges in the south of England and one in particular has 49 students getting into Oxford and Cambridge this year and that is an FE college. There is a fair degree of competition for places at that college. There are other colleges in other parts of the country where they are working in very difficult areas and of course they have to go out and seek the students. They have to, as we have indicated earlier, be much more responsive to where the students are and give them lots of encouragement to attract them in the first place to encourage them to study, and also to retain them.

  Mr Leigh: Thank you very much.

  Chairman: Thank you. Mr Alan Williams?

Mr Williams

  77. Professor, the five colleges that are left that have achievement rates below 50 per cent, which five are they.
  (Professor David Melville) You have to give me notice of that question, I can name the 10 that we have. As I said earlier, I would estimate that there are five, we do not have that data now and by taking what I know to be the number of mergers and also being aware of the some of the colleges that are in the list of 10 some have moved up.

  78. You must have known you would be questioned about this, how is it that you do not know?
  (Professor David Melville) That depends on more recent data than we have published up until now. The data we have published here is 1998-99 data.

  79. I assume you have data on your desk which is the most recent available to you?
  (Professor David Melville) It does not correspond with the current year.

4   Note by Witness: The lower parameter figure should be 65 per cent, up to well over 70 per cent, not 69 per cent as stated. Back

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