College sector overview report 2022 to 2023: Learner retention

Planning and updating the curriculum

All colleges retained many of the positive approaches and processes to teaching the curriculum that they had developed during the periods of campus closure to engage learners and support their retention. College managers encouraged curriculum teams to be creative when developing educational content. Most curriculum teams managed hybrid learning well.

Most curriculum teams worked well together to plan a curriculum that provided engaging experiences for learners from the start of programmes. This included devising induction activities that showed new learners how to make use of resources that were available through teaching departments and centralised college facilities.

Almost all colleges highlighted that many learners, particularly those entering college programmes directly from school, did not have sufficient confidence or learning and study skills to be able to engage fully in college programmes. Some teaching departments supported these new learners, learners who required additional support with learning, and learners who required support with social or behavioural skills well. They engaged curriculum teams in designing activities that supported learners to gain confidence in learning and working with others. However, this was not consistent and a number of colleges had not updated the curriculum sufficiently to fully meet the needs of all learners.

Curriculum staff consulted regularly with employers and industry representatives to align the curriculum to current and emerging industry practice in the local areas. In almost all colleges, staff teams drew on their links with industry to incorporate presentations from external speakers, field visits to industrial workplaces, and work-based activities. These events raised learners’ awareness of industry standards and practices and provided good opportunities for them to make the link between theory and practice.

Most staff teams planned the curriculum so that learners were continuously engaged and motivated throughout the various stages of their programmes. We also saw many examples of well-considered curriculum planning that incrementally built learners’ confidence and motivation. However, this was not consistent across teaching departments and some curriculum teams did not take sufficient account what learners needed to maintain their motivation.

Most colleges offered a range of alternative options to help learners at risk of withdrawing early from full-time programmes to continue their studies. Flexible options, including part-time or online learning, enabled learners to balance their studies with other commitments. Most also provided additional support services, including tutoring or counselling, that helped many learners to overcome academic and personal challenges.

Learning and teaching

The majority of colleges had effective arrangements in place to ensure equity of access for all learners to learning materials and resources, including using assistive technologies. Most colleges provided digital devices for learners. However, in a few colleges, learners experienced long waiting times for equipment or support to resolve technical issues. This had an impact on their ability to fully engage in their learning and access digital resources.

Many colleges emphasised the importance of creating an inclusive and motivating environment for learners to staff. Curriculum teams in these colleges worked quickly to establish positive relationships with learners from the start of programmes. In these colleges, most teaching staff worked well together to give learners an enjoyable and supportive learning experience with good relationships with staff and class peers. This was of particular benefit to learners on programmes that had high levels of online delivery and to learners who experienced challenges in balancing and maintaining their studies alongside external pressures.

Most lecturers made good use of a range of learning and teaching approaches to engage and motivate learners from the early stage of programmes. Many lecturers used digital resources well to enhance learning activities and recorded lessons to extend access to learning outside of class times.

Almost all curriculum staff drew constructively on their links with industry to ensure that learning and teaching methods incorporated current and emerging industry standards. In most programmes, teaching staff incorporated work-based activities, including industry projects and skills competitions. This helped to motivate learners and widened their knowledge of the vocational area.

In a few colleges, teaching staff participated well in professional development activities to increase their understanding of the needs of learners. This included awareness-raising of and training in neurodiversity, mental health and wellbeing. Teaching staff drew on the knowledge gained from this professional learning to identify learners at risk of withdrawal from programmes and plan for support to help them to remain on their programme.

Arrangements for supporting learners

Induction arrangements in all colleges offered a useful introduction to college systems and procedures. In some colleges, students’ associations (SAs) also helped to disseminate information.

Staff in all colleges worked hard to support learners to overcome challenges that impacted negatively on their ability to stay on course. In all colleges, curriculum and support staff worked collaboratively to provide learners with digital devices and access to Wi-Fi, and opportunities outside of timetabled classes to develop digital skills. To ease learners’ financial pressures, almost all colleges offered a range of facilities, including free breakfasts and lunches, along with access to recycled clothing and food banks. Furthermore, many colleges extended their opening hours to provide warm, free Wi-Fi enabled spaces for students.

All colleges experienced a significant increase in the number of learners seeking support for mental health and wellbeing. Almost all support teams enabled learners and staff to access support services online or face-to-face. Professional learning activities for staff increasingly promoted awareness of suicide prevention, particularly among male learners.

In most colleges, support departments worked well with curriculum staff to tailor services to meet the needs of specific learner groups, including, for example, care-experienced learners. All colleges have established links and referral arrangements with external agencies to enable learners to access specialist support when required for issues such as homelessness or debt.

These arrangements worked well for learners who experienced challenges with their learning or mental health issues or whose circumstances changed unexpectedly due to financial pressures, redundancy or ill health. However, a number of colleges have faced financial and staffing challenges that have led to interruptions and delays in providing these services to learners.

All colleges had well-developed arrangements in place for providing academic guidance for learners. Learners on FE programmes had good access to guidance staff, including one-to-one meetings, which helped them to review their progress and identify any additional support required. Guidance staff monitored learner progress and motivation and explored potential career pathways to help learners achieve their goals.

Learners who were unable to continue their programmes due to changes to their personal or work circumstances were supported well by teaching staff to find and undertake alternative industry awards and qualifications.

In most colleges, staff implemented a range of helpful approaches and interventions to support learners at risk of withdrawing early from their programmes. These included:

  • involving learners in developing personalised study plans
  • setting realistic goals for achieving personal and academic ambitions
  • coordinating meetings with relevant staff to provide additional support

Staff reported that these were beginning to impact positively on rates of learner withdrawal. However, it is too early to evaluate the extent of their impact on overall learner retention rates.

Colleges have continued to invest in learners' mental health and wellbeing, offering a variety of services such counselling, wellbeing cafés, neutral spaces, yoga and mindfulness sessions. However, in many colleges, these services are resourced on a short-term basis, which affects how well they can plan for the future and meet the growing demand from learners.

Despite these strategies, too many learners left their programmes early.

Arrangements for improving retention

Almost all colleges had invested in data visualisation and analytical platforms to help curriculum and support teams monitor and evaluate learner attendance and academic progress. Most staff made effective use of real-time, online systems. Through them, staff were also able to identify learners showing signs of being at risk of withdrawal and put in place interventions and coordinated support to re-engage the learners.

Overall, however, monitoring and analysis of learner retention was not consistent and too many staff did not make sufficient or effective use of data to identify and address the reasons for poor attendance and learner withdrawal. In all colleges, managers and staff identified that learners on further education (FE) level programmes were most likely to find hybrid learning challenging and more likely to be adversely affected by financial pressures. However, some colleges had not taken sufficient action to address these issues.

In a few colleges, managers and staff engaged well in self-evaluation approaches to reflect on learner outcomes and the impact of support services on learner retention rates. They gathered and analysed learner feedback, examined outcome trends and collaborated with external partners to develop strategies aimed at improving retention.

In almost all colleges, teaching and support staff actively sought and collated feedback from learners to inform their improvement planning. However, many colleges did not make sufficient use of learner feedback on the early stages of programmes to inform departmental and college-wide action-planning aimed at improving retention.

In a number of colleges, class representatives had not been offered or completed training that would help them understand fully the responsibilities involved in carrying out their roles. Too many colleges had low response rates to the SFC college student satisfaction survey. Many SAs experienced staffing and resourcing challenges that impacted on their ability to engage with learners. Most learners were unaware of the positive contributions made by their SA.

Although all colleges have implemented measures to try to improve learner retention, the overall rate of learner withdrawal from full-time FE and HE programmes remains a cause for concern. Ongoing review of the curriculum and future planning by colleges had not resulted in improvements to learner retention rates in a number of colleges.