Scotland's colleges have had a difficult few years.
There has been a real-terms cut of £56 million to the sector since 2010/11 and a rationalisation and merger process that has left some staff feeling stressed. Those who care about the further education (FE) sector have also started to worry about the effects on youngsters from Scotland's more deprived communities, many of whom rely on colleges to provide them with a chance of education after school.
One of the problems that the colleges have traditionally faced is that students from the most deprived backgrounds are more likely to drop out before the end of a course, but there is now some good news. New statistics have shown the drop-rate among such students has been falling.
The figures from the Scottish Funding Council for 2012/13 show that three-quarters of students from the most deprived one-fifth of postcodes stayed on at college: that is 9% more than in 2006/7. Not only that, the number from the deprived postcodes completing their courses has risen by 12% since 2006/07 to 63%.
These would be impressive figures at any time, but they are particularly so because they have been achieved against a difficult backdrop. It is clear that colleges have been working hard to improve the retention of students from poor backgrounds by providing extra support where it is needed.
This is often in the area of numeracy and literary, where extra support can be critical in improving the confidence of a student and helping him or her to stay on at college and gain a qualification. Colleges have also looked at how to help students deal with factors at home that could lead to them dropping out, and are suggesting solutions. It could be something as simple as reminding the student to phone in to let staff know they will not be in, rather than simply not turning up.
As Margaret Gilroy of Glasgow Clyde College says, some students can end up setting themselves up to fail because they are used to rejection, and this means hundreds of students from poor backgrounds are still dropping out every year. In this respect, there are risks in the Scottish Government's current policy on colleges.
In particular, the Government's decision to concentrate provision on full-time courses that lead to recognised qualifications has the potential to put pressure on shorter taster courses that are particularly suitable for students from deprived backgrounds. One of the traditional ways for colleges to reach such students has been through access programmes that lead to part-time courses. Colleges can then tackle some of the problems that can make further education difficult, such as numeracy, and encourage the students on to other courses that may lead, in time, to a qualification.
If the Scottish Government continues to turn the screw on the FE sector, such good work could be threatened. The figures from the Scottish Funding Council show colleges are still managing to do good work, but they have sometimes only been able to do so by working with partners in the voluntary sector and elsewhere. Their work with students from deprived communities is too important to be put under any further pressure.
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