Colleges ‘fixing’ the success rate figures. Where will it end?

An overwhelming majority of staff working in FE colleges have concerns with the credibility of success rate data.

A survey conducted by Lsect, publisher of FE Week, revealed that after excluding those who responded ‘don’t know’, 90 per cent said “yes” to the question: “Across colleges, do you think there is a problem with success rate data credibility?”

Becky Dowst, CIS manager at Totton College, said: “The artificial inflation of college success rates causes the national rates to rise, putting colleges under greater pressure to improve their own success rates still further…where will it end?”

Angie Tithecott, head of funding and performance review at Canterbury College, added: “Over the years I have had other staff within my college come back and tell me how other colleges improve their rates; this has been using methods I would have said were not acceptable, like changing end dates and removing fails.”

The survey, which had 106 responses from 94 colleges, followed a confidential report, seen by FE Week, from Tenon Education Training and Skills Limited. The document, which FE Week reported in its last edition, was written for a secret group of FE colleges and suggested headline success rates could be improved by up to 10 per cent by adopting unfair practices.

Jon Brown, MIS manager for Loughborough College, said: “There is certainly pressure within colleges to find ways to maximise success rates (other than by making sure the data is correct).

“This is unhelpful to say the least and in discussions with colleagues in the sector, there is definitely a spread of views as to whether this is acceptable.

“Given this, it is highly likely that a significant number of colleges ‘fix’ the success rates.

“The problem is that most of the information is anecdotal, but there is a growing unease that some colleges have knowingly decided to take actions that disguise the true picture.”

If we receive reliable intelligence about any provider manipulating their data the Agency will investigate fully.”

The Tenon report claimed: “the use of practices to improve success rates is widespread within FE colleges.”

Seventy-per cent of respondents to the Lsect survey agreed when asked if they thought this was true. Dean Carey, head of MIS at South Nottingham College, said: “I’ve worked in four colleges in an MIS role and there has always been pressure applied to the MIS/data teams to ‘sort’ the data out either with individual department heads or cross-college.

“It requires these teams to maintain a strong stance and make managers aware of the risks and ultimately providers can be setting themselves up to fail by artificially inflating success rates.”

He added: “We’ve all seen the letters from the funding agencies warning us not to adjust data and there will be tighter checks done, etc.”

Mr Carey said the reality was that resources were being squeezed at the Skills Funding Agency (SFA).

However, 24 survey respondents disagreed that the practices were “widespread”.

Neil Reeves, MIS team leader at City College Brighton & Hove, said: “There may be some instances where the practices outlined are occurring, but I feel they may be looking for a scandal that isn’t there.”

A spokesperson for the SFA told FE Week: “The Agency does not use overall success rates as a means of managing and regulating funds, or as a trigger for formal intervention.

“If we receive reliable intelligence about any provider manipulating their data the Agency will investigate fully.”

The Tenon report also said colleges were using specific practices “to support in the manipulation of inspection grades.”

However, a spokesperson for Ofsted told FE Week:  “Ofsted is confident of the reliability of the national success rates data for this purpose.

“Ofsted also uses a range of other sources of evidence when arriving at inspection judgments including the provider’s own in-year performance data, the provider’s self-assessment report, previous inspection findings, observations of teaching, training and assessment and the views of staff, learners and employers.”