National auditors warned this week that low student achievement and retention rates in further education colleges are jeopardising learning targets set by the government.
Only half of further education students over 18 years old gain the qualifications they are aiming for, while achievement rates among 16 to 18-year-olds are barely better, at 56 per cent, according to a National Audit Office report published this week.
Research by the NAO found that while improvements had been made in student achievement and retention since the government's four-year learning targets were launched in 1998, progress had been slow because of a wide gap between the best and the worst colleges.
Retention rates varied from 98 per cent down to 72 per cent, while achievement rates varied from 98 per cent down to as low as 33 per cent.
Sir John Bourn, head of the NAO, said overall success rates remained "disappointing", despite a dramatic drop in the number of colleges with achievement rates below 50 per cent.
"Poorer performing colleges need to adopt the good practices of the best if they are to help the government meet the national learning targets," he said.
MP's concerns about retention and achievement in further education prompted the NAO to conduct a survey, interviewing students who had dropped out and holding discussion groups with those still at college.
It found the most common reasons for dropping out included students taking the wrong subject or at the wrong level, underestimating the level of commitment they were taking on, the impact of other commitments such as a part-time job, lack of essential support such as childcare, and finding it difficult to settle into their course.
Students often fail exams if they are not enjoying the course, finding it too difficult, or not getting enough learning support. The quality of teaching is also a "major factor" affecting achievement, the report says.
The NAO recommends that more colleges should encourage students to set up "buddy" schemes or self-help groups, provide more effective activities to help students integrate, closely monitor absences and identify and support students with weaknesses in study techniques or basic skills.
• A national strike of further education lecturers in England and Wales, starting in May, appears likely as college chiefs this week ducked demands from union leaders for an immediate £3,000 pay rise for full-time staff.
The college lecturers' union Natfhe had given the Association of Colleges until Wednesday to meet the demands. But the AoC said the claim should be taken forward to a meeting of the sector's National Joint Forum on April 3.
In a letter to Natfhe general secretary Paul Mackney, AoC chief executive David Gibson said colleges shared the union's concerns over the growing disparity between the pay and conditions of teachers in colleges and in schools.
• The Scottish Further Education Funding Council wants to see a massive increase in lecturers undergoing teacher training over the next three years, writes Olga Wojtas.
SFEFC's first corporate plan, unveiled this week, sets a series of challenging targets for the sector between now and 2003. These include a rise in the number of full-time staff with teaching qualifications from 70 per cent to 90 per cent.
SFEFC also wants the percentage of part-time staff with at least an introductory teaching award to double from 35 per cent to 70 per cent. This would mean up to 13,000 teaching staff having professional qualifications by 2003.
This year, SFEFC has earmarked Pounds 1 million for general staff development, with another Pounds 2 million to support staff development in information and communications technology.
SFEFC wants to see a 3 per cent increase in the number of entrants from Scotland's most deprived postcode areas. And in the five years between 1998-99 and 2003-04, it also wants a 10 per cent increase in the number of entrants from underrepresented areas who take up higher education courses.