Accusing colleges of withholding customer information because they have something to hide, as the new Head of the UK Commission on Employment and Skills does in the TES (19th August – click here), may make for a good headline in the silly season but hardly makes a useful contribution to the debate on accountability.  Michael Davis would have been better advised to follow the recommendations published by his own organisation last year (click here) suggesting that the issues involved in improving information for customers ‘must be addressed with a positive, problem solving attitude rather than as a ‘stick to beat’ the sector’   The reality is that while providing information that helps students make well informed choices is important and something that colleges take very seriously it is also much more difficult than the armchair generals queuing up to advise FE might think.

To begin with customers of the FE sector are not short of data.  Colleges publish success rates for long and short courses annually which, along with observational data also find their way into published inspection grades.  Colleges carry out student satisfaction surveys and regularly receive ratings that many other public and private organisations would die for.  It is not true to suggest that Leicester College is the only one that makes use of more detailed data on student destinations (though it may well be the only one that uses Mr Davis’s pet scheme) and the proportions progressing into further education or employment is an integral part of the information published by every college under ‘Framework for Excellence’.   A helpful further step would be for the YPLA to analyse and publish this destination data for major types of course or by categories of student rather than simply using it as one means of grading colleges.

may make for a good headline in the silly season but hardly makes a useful contribution to the debate on accountability.”

It is good that in moving to a genuinely ‘demand led’ system of further education the government intends to give greater priority to information that serves the needs of customers.  There is no shortage of well meaning advice on how this might be done – ‘food labelling approaches’ ‘traffic lights’ or ‘scorecards’ are regularly proposed by bodies like UKCES in broad brush terms conveniently leaving the awkward detail to others.  Some suggestions are ludicrously impractical such as the Commission’s own suggestion that colleges publish the increase in wages paid to successful graduates of individual courses.  Others are possible but miss the point.  A potential student is not so much interested in average pass rates or employment rates for a programme as in the prospects for someone like me.

What most students need is not more tables of data but skilled and impartial guidance that helps them assess options in the light of their own context, ambitions and attitudes to risk.  Instead of cheap jibes at colleges UKCES would serve the country better if it challenged the serious cuts currently being made to the Careers Service that make the chances of such guidance increasingly remote.

Mick Fletcher is the Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Education