Teenagers failing to reach education goals: School inspectors say better advice for students could cut the pounds 500m a year spent on courses that often end in failure. Donald MacLeod reports

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The Independent Online
MORE THAN a third of 16 to 19- year-old students in England and Wales either drop out or fail to get their intended qualifications, the Audit Commission and school inspectors report today.

The finding comes at a time when the Government is desperate to improve the poor rate of staying on in full-time education among Britain's young people compared to the rest of Europe, Japan and North America.

The commission and the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), the new inspection authority, also support the publishing of 'value added' information on schools and colleges showing how students progress between GCSE and A-level.

On some courses the lack of success is 'nothing short of alarming' with no students qualifying at all or three-quarters dropping out, according to a report on A-levels and vocational qualifications such as Btec. A failure rate of 30 to 40 per cent is typical.

In addition to the human price, the cost of these courses involving 150,000 young people is estimated at pounds 500m. The commission says that a combination of improved success rates and increasing the size of A-level groups to at least 10 will save pounds 330m a year.

Andrew Foster, Controller of the Audit Commission, said it was a 'waste of both resources and talent' and matter of concern for Britain's economic future that so many did not complete or were unsuccessful in their courses. 'More should be done to reduce the level of non-completion and we must start by empowering students with more information and independent advice.' The report, Unfinished Business, says the key to tackling the problem is to steer young people on to the right course in the first place. Students with modest GCSE results - say a C in four subjects and three Ds - should be advised that they stand a low chance of getting A- levels, the report argues. The commission admits that good teaching and commitment on the part of students can achieve better than expected results, but says that schools and colleges have a financial incentive to recruit for courses regardless of the likely outcomes.

The commission urges the Government to make schools and colleges publish non-completion rates as well as examination results as part of the information that students and their parents need. In many colleges and schools there is a 'disturbing' lack of data on students' initial and final qualifications. This should be routine and would help institutions monitor courses effectively and improve their admissions, the commission says. 'Value added' evaluations showing students' progress from GCSE to A-level have been developed by the commission, which wants these to be published as well. These show many schools and colleges doing better by their students than straight examination league tables at first suggest. 'For a student trying to decide whether to enrol on a course, the success rate of the course with students who had similar prior qualifications is more informative than the general rate of success,' the report says.

But although it is possible to predict what grades students ought to get at A-level from their GCSE results, the inspectors and the commission have not so far been able to develop a system for vocational qualifications.

The role of the careers service as a 'champion of students' giving independent advice about competing courses in schools and colleges needs to be enhanced, the report says.

The study finds a wide variation both in effectiveness and cost of courses. The best 10 per cent of schools and colleges 'add' at least three grades more than the worst 10 per cent. 'This could easily be the difference between obtaining or not obtaining a university place for a young adult.'

Costs for an A-level student vary from pounds 1,000 a year to pounds 7,000, according to size of classes and teaching time. The proportion of students who succeed on courses shows no link with these costs, according to the commission, which says there would be considerable scope for savings if group sizes were raised to a minimum of 10. Teacher/student contact time for each subject varies from 3.6 hours to 6.3 hours a week. Inspectors judge less than five hours to be barely adequate, but say limiting subjects to five hours would reduce costs from the present norm of pounds 3,000 to pounds 2,800 a year.

Unfinished Business; full-time educational courses for 16-19-year- olds; Audit Commission and Ofsted; HMSO; pounds 9.