Student numbers in colleges are continuing to decline with no improvement in dropout rates, figures released this week by funding chiefs show.
Full-time student numbers fell another 2 per cent in 1998-99 - a repeat of the previous year - while part-time numbers slid by 1 per cent, bucking the upward trend of the previous two years.
Performance indicators for 426 colleges, analysed by the Further Education Funding Council, reveal that more than 40 per cent of them failed to achieve their funding unit target, governed largely by student numbers, in 1998-99.
There was no improvement in retention rates, with 13 per cent of full-time students and 16 per cent of part-timers dropping out of courses. A report on the indicators says retention rates have been "largely stable" since 1995-96, despite "strong improvements" in 1998-99 by colleges with the highest proportion of dropouts.
This is the fifth year the FEFC has published data measuring colleges against performance indicators. Since 1997-98, five indicators have been used: colleges' achievement of their funding targets, student numbers, student retention rates, student achievement rates and colleges' contribution to national learning targets.
The worst performing colleges have made significant improvements in the achievement of their students. The 10 per cent of colleges with the worst student achievement rates in 1996-97 had, on average, improved by 23 percentage points two years later.
The bottom quarter of colleges in 1996-97 had an achievement rate for students aiming for "long" qualifications of less than 60 per cent. This had improved to 70 per cent by 1998-99.
John Brennan, the Association of Colleges' director of further education development, welcomed the figures. He said: "We already knew that student numbers had been falling, but what is important is that retention rates are good and achievement rates are significantly improving."
Improvements by the worst performing colleges helped raise achievement rates for the whole sector by 1 per cent in 1998-99. However, this still left more than a quarter of students failing to gain qualifications.
Achievement rates continue to vary by type of college. Sixth-form colleges did the best in 1998-99, with an average of 86 per cent of all students aiming for qualifications achieving a pass, compared with 79 per cent in specialist art and design, performing arts, and agriculture colleges, and 73 per cent in general FE colleges.