Colleges are stemming the flow of drop-outs and are helping more students to gain qualifications, according to figures from the Further Education Funding Council.
The FEFC's performance indicators, revealing levels of retention and achievement in all colleges, show that the proportion of students successfully completing college courses has risen for the third year, to 75 per cent for 1997-98. Student retention has stayed at 87 per cent for full-time students.
Although the average student achievement rate has risen by 6 per cent since 1995-96 - and is up 2 per cent over last year - the proportion of students successfully gaining qualifications still varies widely between colleges.
On some longer courses, especially where student "deprivation" was high, failure rates reached 33 per cent. But at some colleges with relatively low student deprivation - including Melton Mowbray, Oaklands and Stanmore colleges - failure rates topped 50 per cent. The FEFC said that the colleges with the worst achievement rates were generally improving.
Sixth-form colleges are far more successful in getting students through exams. In 1997-98, the average achievement rate in sixth-form colleges was 85 per cent, compared with 70 per cent in general further education colleges.
Across the sector, average retention rates have barely changed in the past three years, although drop-outs among full-time students are higher in general further education colleges than in specialist and sixth-form colleges.
David Melville, FEFC chief executive, said: "This data shows that FE is taking major steps forward in raising its standards of education and training." He said the indicators were vital. "Colleges can measure their improvement by using these indicators as a starting point," he said.