In or Out?
British further education colleges did not traditionally have any concerns about student drop-out, because the origins of the sector were in vocational apprenticeship training for employers where the apprentice could not drop out without endangering their job. In the 70s, this sector began to expand into more general education courses, which were seen both as an alternative to school for 16-18 year-olds and a second chance for adults. The philosophy was mainly liberal with students regarded as adults who should not be heavily monitored, but rather free to make their own decisions; it was not uncommon to hear academic staff argue that attendance at classes was purely voluntary.
In the 80s, with an increased consciousness of equal opportunities, the focus of the further education college moved to widening participation, encouraging into colleges students from previously under-represented groups, particularly from ethnic minorities. This, in turn, led to a curriculum which was more representative of the new student body. For example, there were initiatives to ensure the incorporation of literature by black writers into A-level literature courses; history syllabuses were altered to move beyond a purely Eurocentric view of the world; and geography syllabuses began to look at the politics of maps.
A turning point came in 1991 with the publication of a report on completion rates by the government inspection body for education, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate for England and Wales, (HMI 1991). However, this report was based on academic staff’s explanations of why students had left. It suggested that the vast majority left either for personal reasons or because they had found employment and that only 10% left for reasons that could in any way be attributed to the college.
Meanwhile, Britain had been going through the Thatcherite revolution and, in parallel to the Reagan politics of the US, a key principle was the need to focus on radical taxation reduction. At this point (and to a large extent still), further and higher education colleges were almost entirely funded from the public purse. There had been many cuts in this funding through the 80s, but no one had really looked at value for money. However in the early 90s, the Audit Commission with Office of Standards in Education (OFSTED) (the new version of HMI) turned the spotlight onto further education and published a seminal report, Unfinished Business (Audit Commission and OFSTED 1993), which showed that drop-out was happening on a significant scale and, crucially given the politics of the time, attributed a cost to the state of £500 million, arguing that this was a waste of public (i.e. taxpayers’) money. To quote Yorke (1999), non-completion became political. The Audit Commission report coincided with government moves to privatise the functions of the state as much as possible; and with the decision to remove further education from the control of local government and give it a quasi-dependent status, where colleges were governed by independent boards of governors bidding to the state for funding to run educational provision. As part of this, a new series of principles for funding and bidding were developed (FEFC 1994) which incorporated severe financial penalties for student drop-out. In essence, the system is that almost all the state funding is attached to the individual student. There is funding for initial advice and guidance, on-course delivery and student achievement, but if the student drops out, the college loses that funding immediately, so that loss of students in the first term leads to an immediate loss of college funding for the other two terms. Not surprisingly, this focused the concern of colleges immediately and sharply on the need to improve student retention rates.
Recently, therefore, there has been considerable effort to improve retention but, as Martinez (1995) pointed out, there was no body of research on which to base strategies. An additional complexity was that colleges had been slow to computerise their student data and most colleges were in the position of not knowing what their retention rates were or any patterns involved. Where data did exist it was held separately by either administrative or academic staff with poor communication between these groups. Colleges, however, jumped into a number of strategies based largely on experience, instinct and common sense and publication of these began (Martinez 1996; Martinez 1997; Kenwright 1996; Kenwright 1997).
The main strategies tried are outlined in the literature as summarised by Martinez (1996). These include sorting activities around entry to ensure ‘best fit’, supporting activities including child care, financial support and enrichment/learner support, connecting activities to strengthen the relationship between the college and the student, including mentoring and tutorials and activities to transform the student, including raising of expectations and study/career development support and tutoring.
Questions 1 — 5
Complete the sentences below with words taken from Reading Passage .
Use NO MORE THAN THREE WORDS for each answer.
1. Further education colleges in Britain were originally not worried about student drop-out, because students did not leave college for fear of.......................
2. According to the writer, the philosophy at further education colleges was...........
3. As people became more aware of equal opportunities, colleges encouraged students from under-represented groups, as a move to....................... .
4. The HMI’s report focused on completion rates, based on.......................of reasons for students’ departure from college.
5. In the early 1990s, the political situation, both in Britain and the US, demanded a major......