Lack of financial support adds to course pressure: Barnet College is already carrying out many of the recommendations designed to reduce drop-out rates

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MARILYN PO is one of the 150,000 young people the Audit Commission estimates did not successfully complete their courses.

She was finding A-levels tough going, though she admits that it was partly her own fault that she was not getting through all the work. After discussions with her tutor at Barnet College in north London, Marilyn switched to the vocational equivalent of A-levels, a Btec National course in social care. Now a year older at 17, she is coping much better with the work.

Her case is just one example of the need to match students to the right courses, which the commission's report picks out as one of the keys to improving the 'alarmingly' low success rate in many courses.

Students sometimes find difficulty in adapting to college or sixth-form life. Sonia Chabria, who is on the same course as Marilyn, said: 'Sometimes the assignments do get on top of you. You are at an age when you want to enjoy yourself. There are other interests or sport at the college and you want to try that out.'

But she is sticking to her goal of completing the course and going to university. 'It is a time of recession. Before you might have dropped out, but now you feel, 'Where am I going to go?' You have a better chance of a job if you stay on the course.'

Students and staff at Barnet College are more aware of the economic pressures causing dropping out than the academic ones. Fear of unemployment may spur students to stay on, but the recession is hitting family budgets. Unemployed parents may feel unable to support student children.

A lot of 16 to 18-year-olds are being pushed out of their family homes, Shirley Sandiford, head of student services at the college, said. Most students have part-time evening or weekend jobs which may encroach on study time. In one case a student trying to work four evenings plus weekends to support himself has been warned that his work is suffering too much to continue the course.

Ms Sandiford said: 'There is a tremendous amount of zeal to learn. The students who come here want to be here and will go to enormous lengths to stay.' What is needed is proper support for students, she feels. 'The Government is pushing more people into college, but is not putting money aside to finance them.'

Barnet College is typical of many in further education which have expanded rapidly. There are now 1,900 full-time students - a 20 per cent increase on two years ago - and the variety of courses to be monitored has blossomed.

Much of what the Audit Commission recommends is already being done at the college. Rosemary Towers, the vice-principal, said the college had started logging students' qualifications on entry. Drop-outs are closely monitored. Departments have a target to recruit 18 per group and know that they stand to lose money if their numbers fall by more than three below this figure.

Barnet is oversubscribed with about three applicants for each place and can be choosy. However, Ms Towers says it is important to give a second chance, perhaps on a vocational course, to students who may not have the standard qualifications. In these cases they need more support.

But the college can only do so much to help its students succeed without a proper system of financial support, Ms Towers believes.

(Photograph omitted)