Colleges have suffered an overall drop of three per cent in 16-18 year old learners, a new survey has revealed.

The survey, conducted by Lsect, funding consultancy and the publisher of FE Week, also showed that more than 60 per cent of further education (FE) and sixth form colleges are concerned that learners will not return after Christmas.

The statistics, from 88 who responded, are similar to those from a previous Lsect survey compiled in September.

It is also similar to the recruitment survey conducted by the Association of Colleges (AoC), released in October, which showed that 49 per cent of 182 colleges reported falling numbers of 16-19-year-olds compared to last year.

However, it showed a national drop of only 0.1 per cent.

These up-to-date figures, collected as colleges submitted R04 data returns last week, show a target total of 182,914 – but an actual recruitment of 177,228 learners, meaning a three per cent loss overall.

Sixth form colleges performed slightly better than FE colleges, with a performance decrease of one per cent, compared to four per cent.

However, the sample of FE colleges was much larger, with 68 responders and 20 for sixth form colleges.

The survey also revealed 64 per cent of those who replied are either “a little concerned” or have “very big concerns” that 16-18 year-old learners may fail to return to their colleges after Christmas.

A number of reasons have been blamed for the decline in learner numbers, including the loss of the Education Maintenance Allowance.

However, the survey also threw up a different line to the exclusive ‘employer poaching’ story in FE Week last week.

Jon Carr, assistant principal funding and planning at Tameside College, said four learners had been poached by a “private training organisation” after enrolling.

He said: “Somehow they got hold of the details for a learner, persuaded that person to join on their course and three others have gone as well. It was after the first six weeks so it acts negatively towards our success rates. We don’t know if anything was offered, but somehow they managed to persuade the learner and then they may have spoken to the other three.”

He added: “Success rates are the main currency in our performance and how it’s measured. We were clearly very angry.”

The college is yet to report the incident to the AoC, nor to the Skills Funding Agency, but they have spoken to their local authority for guidance.

Teresa Frith, policy manager for the AoC, said: “It’s another example of poor practice that would not appear to be in the interest of learners in the long term.”

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) added: “This is a practice that AELP would discourage.”

A spokesperson for the Skills Funding Agency said: “The Agency hasn’t been made aware of any individual cases of learner poaching.

“Should a case be brought to the attention of the Agency by a learner, we will review accordingly.”

The survey also revealed that 42 per cent of the colleges who responded say they suffered some difficulties when they submitted their R04 data return.

UPDATE: The Skills Funding Agency (SFA) has confirmed that R04 data returns were submitted on time.

A spokesperson for the SFA said: “The Data Service would like to thank providers for their hard work and efforts in ensuring that their R04 ILR return was submitted on time.

“This has resulted in a successful close of R04, where we have received data from 1,171 providers totalling 3 million learner records and 8.7 million learning aims records.”

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