From education to employment

Diminish drop-out danger

This autumn, demand far outstripped supply for university courses leaving nearly 200,000 students scrambling for the few remaining places. The knock-on effect for further education was a steep rise in demand as school leavers looked to their local FE college to improve their grades or considered choosing a more skills based approach to their career path.

This, combined with a surge of post-18 applicants seeking access to university via the ‘Access to Higher Education courses’, has meant that application numbers at City and Islington have seen a marked rise on the previous academic year and our college – like others around the country – has not been able to fully meet demand.

While no doubt the FE sector was universally delighted to find itself so popular, there is a very real danger that the current bumper crop of enrolments could lead to student withdrawal problems within weeks. In our sector, where funding is intrinsically linked to retention, the consequences could be financially crippling.

Significant progress has been made since a Ministry of Education report from 1959 showed completion rates in technical colleges were as low as 6% and rarely rose above 50%, but what is worrying is that there remains a myth that drop-out rates are caused predominantly by external factors. As recently as the early 90’s, an authoritative report from HM Inspectorate (1991) on completion rates suggested that around 80% of the reasons for dropping out were external. However, research since then has pointed much more directly at internal factors within the college process, with the 2001 LSDA report naming poor quality of advice, indiscriminate course choice and uninspiring teaching as significant culprits.

This research also pointed out that the demographic, social and even financial backgrounds of students that withdraw and those that complete their courses are not dissimilar. There was no marked difference between withdrawn and completing students in terms of age, gender or ethnic origin, and there was only a weak correlation between area of social deprivation and retention.

Often colleges concentrate their attentions on attendance; if students have missed a couple of lessons they are flagged to their tutors. But this is equivalent to closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Personal experience has shown that action to reduce the risk of dropping out must be taken before the student has even enrolled. The quality of information, advice and guidance that is provided enables applicants to make informed decisions so this, coupled with an admissions policy that assesses the suitability of the course and ability of the learner, is critical.

Students who feel well-informed about their course and have a good understanding of the potential demands, for example assessment requirements and the balance of practical and classroom work, are much less likely to eventually withdraw.

At this time of year, colleges who want to keep as many students as possible on course will already have paid careful attention to the induction process and will now be focusing on establishing a close tutor/student relationship that centres around progress and achievement. Essentially, storing all information on a central MIS system – we use Capita’s UNIT-e – and constantly referring to it will prompt swift intervention if any warning signs of ‘at-risk’ students become apparent.

By collecting all the information in one place, we can efficiently and easily monitor all stages of the applications process. Even more importantly, this information gives us the knowledge we need to help personalise the learner journey and ensure learners are being assessed and enrolled not only on the right courses but also at the correct level.

Relevant support systems can then be put in place in order to ensure that individual needs are being met and this helps us to reduce the risk of drop out.

All colleges should be aware that any students who are currently applying late or joining courses after they have started are by far the biggest risk group. A policy of ‘bums on seats’ now is very dangerous – filling courses with inappropriate students is a false economy and can lead to retention problems later down the line.

Not only is this damaging for colleges’ finances and reputation but it will cause a significant knock to the self-esteem of the many learners the FE sector want to help, making it much harder for them to re-engage with education and training later down the line.

Of course, there will always be circumstances outside of college control that negatively affect a number of students but the real distinguishing features between the two groups are indeed in areas which colleges can take action. At a time when belt-tightening is the norm, every college should double-check their internal procedures to guard against unnecessarily losing students.

Caryn Swart is chief information officer of City and Islington College, London

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