The ethos and management style of a further education college has a greater impact on students' achievements than student origin, researchers have concluded.
A report on a study by the Learning and Skills Development Agency, published this week, says the area in which a student lives does not account alone for how successful they are in gaining the qualifications they are aiming for.
For the past two years, the Further Education Funding Council has focused on numbers of students recruited from areas of high deprivation in assessing colleges' achievement and retention rates.
But the agency's study, which looks at colleges serving deprived areas, has found that some colleges with the highest number of students from lower socio-economic groups also have a high proportion of students gaining qualifications. Yet others with similar student profiles have poor achievement levels.
By comparing student groups within colleges with the highest and lowest achievement rates, researchers concluded that less than half the differences in student achievement could be attributed to student profile.
The report says the main explanation for the different performance levels must therefore reflect differences in institutional ethos, systems, procedures and practices, and demographic and other factors outside the direct influence of the college.
Ursula Howard, the agency's director of research and development, said:
"The early results from this project are encouraging. They demonstrate that it is possible for colleges to help students from even the most disadvantaged backgrounds achieve the qualifications they want."
An earlier FEFC report showed that while most colleges have improved their achievement and retention rates, they are still well short of their own targets. The report suggests that "setting challenging yet realistic targets is a skill that is not yet fully developed across the sector".