‘Cheated’ colleges’ secret audit

A report commissioned by a secret group of FE colleges has accused other institutions of manipulating data in order to boost success rates.

The document, written by Tenon Education Training and Skills Limited on behalf of the Tenon Education Training and Skills College Forum and seen by FE Week, suggests FE colleges are able to improve headline success rates by up to 10 per cent by adopting unfair practises.

The “widespread” methods listed in the report include recruiting above a college’s funding targets, then declaring certain learners to be unfunded and removing them from the final Individualised Learner Record (ILR) return.

Other practices include making late decisions on whether or not they should declare a learner is studying an additional qualification to their primary learning goal.

The use of practices to improve success rates is widespread within FE colleges.”

The methods, which the report says were originally identified by the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), also include changing the end dates of courses retrospectively, removing overseas or work-based learners from their ILR return and using transfer codes to remove students from specific lines of data.

The report reads: “The use of practices to improve success rates is widespread within FE colleges.

“The failure of the regulatory bodies and the funding agencies to deal with these practices in a clear and open way has led to their continuation and expansion into other colleges as the sector strives to achieve sector success benchmarks which are artificially high.”

However, the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) say they are “assured” that data manipulation is not a widespread issue in the FE sector.

“Since 2009 we have only uncovered one case of data manipulation,” an SFA spokesperson told FE Week.

“This was uncovered through audit and appropriate steps were taken.”

The spokesperson added: “We are aware of an unpublished report produced by Tenon making allegations of data manipulation in the FE Sector. As it stands, the research methods and analysis in the report do not provide for robust conclusions. We would be pleased to discuss our reservations once the report is published.”

The Department for Education (DfE) told FE Week they had nothing to add. The “unfair” practices, the report claims, now make it impossible to compare colleges with one another using success rates.

“These practices make it difficult for the colleges in the sector which put learners first and do not undertake practices to inflate success rates to compete and could ultimately result in the sector’s outstanding colleges being those that do not necessarily deliver the best chance of success to the learners,” the report reads.

The report also says colleges are using specific practices “to support in the manipulation of inspection grades.”

One of these, called “destroyed the trends”, is where a college stops offering a specific learning aim once its success rate starts to decline.

“Although the data would be included in the overall success rates for the previous two years, it would be excluded from the remit of the inspection,” the report states.

The second, called ‘buy one, get one free’, is where a college decides to run a learning aim with a declining success rate as a non-funded qualification, while choosing to use a similar learning aim under a different inspection code.

“We understand these practices have been in a number of colleges that have achieved high grades at inspection,” the report reads.

However, Ofsted say looking at success rates is only a small part of their inspection process.

A spokesperson for Ofsted said: “Ofsted uses success rate data as a starting point for inspection and as a source of evidence to judge outcomes for learners. Ofsted is confident of the reliability of the national success rates data for this purpose.”

The report says the Tenon Education Training and Skills College Forum was created because principals felt “cheated” about the practices being used to improve success rates.

Part of the forum’s role, the document says, is to show there are a “significant number of colleges who strive to act with the highest possible integrity” for their students and communities.

However, it is understood that FE colleges can only enter the group when once they have been invited by Tenon Education Training and Skills, and also passed certain “entry criteria”.

Tenon Education Training and Skills declined to comment on the report and membership of the forum.

The Association of Colleges said they have a policy of not commenting on leaked reports.

Figures published by the Data Service on the 24 May show that ‘General FE College including Tertiary’ all length success rate rose from 79.3 per cent in 2009/10 to 81.4 per cent in 2010/11.

For more on the techniques described in the Tenon report and latest success rate figures see page 4 in the FE Week newspaper.