Failing colleges could be closed for poor results

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Weak colleagues face closure as part of a crackdown on standards within further education that will be outlined by the Government today.

Ministers are alarmed that, of the four million youngsters in further education, only 50 per cent will leave with the qualification they sought; one in four will leave with nothing at all.

The new "get-tough" strategy, outlined in The Independent by Margaret Hodge, the Minister for Higher Education, will be spelt out to a conference of college principals and leading figures from the world of adult education in London today.

Writing in today's education supplement, Ms Hodge says: "Four in 10 colleges need to be reinspected in one or more curriculum areas and a majority of work-based training providers are weak or unsatisfactory.

"One in five students drops out and when you add that to an average achievement rate, which is lower than we would like, it means students have a 50-50 chance of coming away from post-16 learning having achieved what they set out to."

As a result, the Government is drawing up a strategy to combat poor provision. "For those who have persistently under-performed, we need to be rigorous and single-minded in demanding improvement," says Ms Hodge.

A source at the Department for Education and Skills said closing colleges would be "an extreme last measure", adding: "There would be other measures beforehand such as drawing up action plans for improvement or replacing governors. We want to celebrate success but we will not shirk from action to deal with failure."

Failing schools have already been warned they face closure if they do not improve their performance and, last autumn, Ms Hodge warned universities they may have to merge or close if they cannot attract enough students. The Government is lifting a cap on student numbers which will allow the strongest universities to recruit more students but could put weaker ones in peril.

Ms Hodge will be urging college principals to start a debate on her proposals from today. So far, new powers allowing a crackdown on further education institutions have only been used in cases of fraud or where colleges have run into financial difficulties. As a result of today's announcement, the Learning and Skills Councils will attack poor teaching standards, too.

Ms Hodge says in her article: "We need to do more to improve teaching and learning where standards are faltering, through extensive teacher training."

She will also call on further education colleges to develop their own specialities – in line with the way the Government has encouraged secondary schools to specialise in different subject areas.

She also urges them to celebrate "the many success stories there in further education". Over 90 per cent of college teaching is satisfactory or better, she adds.