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The spokesperson added: “We are aware of an unpublished report produced by Tenon making allegations of data manipulation in the FE Sector.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.



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7 Comments

  1. Geoffrey Hooper

    A secret group of un-named individuals commission a report to demonstrate that their competitors are using bad practice. The resulting report, predictably, states that abuse is “widespread” without citing any evidence, and simply lists practices identified three years ago by the relevant authority, explicitly outlawed and regulated against. The commissioners of the report won’t show their faces; the authors dont comment. Is this report a classic case of a waste of money spent on mud-slinging and dragging down the sector? Why does FE Week give this oxygen?

  2. MIS Manager

    “to find out how you could get away with it too, subscribe to our paper!”

    But seriously, EVERYONE knows this is going on and has always gone on. The most egregious examples had, i thought, been stamped out following the Ofsted/Geoff Russell situation, but even as an MIS Manager and part of a college’s SMT, what do you do when your vice-principal DEMANDS that you remove (or “decline the funding” to use the weasel words) a cohort of A-level learners because they’ve got 50% success? It’s a braver person than I who would whistleblow. FE is a very small community and if you get a reputation as a troublemaker, what can you do? Especially when you know others are getting away with it.

    The problem is SFA (and LSC and FEFC before them) have a vested interest in ever increasing success rates. If we had a proper proper clear out of all of these practices (and how you’d manage that I’ve no idea, “oh it was an error” can get you out of a lot of problems) rates would fall by 10%, everyone would be under MLP and a fair number of Outstanding colleges would be in serious difficulties. We have to embrace the Realpolitik and ask seriously if we want that to happen?

    The sector is given £3 billion a year and educates just over a million people a year, these two figures have barely changed over the last decade. However we divide up the money, all of the rules and regulations are just so many hoops to jump through, people still learn things and go and improve their lives and contribute to society, everything else is just a game.

    for obvious reasons i’m not putting my real name to this.

    • Dear MIS Manager,
      If your college is discovered, will your vice-principal step forward to say “actually I demanded MIS make the change”, or to condemn your disreputable practices that they knew nothing about?

      You don’t need to whistleblow, just say no. Our job is to protect our colleges long term positions and reputation, not pander to someone that doesn’t understand the potential ramifications.

      Yes, it’s easier for me, I have the last word on data and a college principal that agrees manipulation is a terrible idea.

      • MIS Manager

        I don’t work for that college any more because the whole thing was driving me crazy. Interestingly the VP who was pressuring me is now the principal and the college was graded outstanding at its last inspection, with none of the underhand practises discovered…

  3. Jon Carr

    I think we need to be careful here when we talk about ‘manipulating data’.
    I quote – ‘One of these, called “destroyed the trends”, is where a college stops offering a specific learning aim once its success rate starts to decline.’
    Surely this is what any sensible College would do, and if it didn’t, it would quite possibly be made to do so through the MLP process?