Sector report: Further education 2021-2022
There are 12 colleges providing further education courses in Wales
There are 12 colleges providing further education courses in Wales. Many cover multiple sites across a wide geographical area.
A majority operate under a group structure, with separate college identities for individual sites or regional site clusters. A few colleges operate as wholly owned subsidiaries of higher education institutions.
Learners at further education institutions (FEIs)
All FE learners at FEIs
2019-2020: 94,220 -3%
Full-time FE learners
2019-2020: 46,290 +3%
Part-time FE learners
2019-2020: 47,930 -11%
Learners at FEIs with Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic Backgrounds
Learners at FEIs identified as having a “disability and/or learning difficulty”
- No. of inspections 2
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, core inspections only resumed in March 2022.
- No. of case studies 4
- No. of visits 12
All engagement visits took place between September and December 2021.
There are currently no further education colleges in follow-up.
In September 2021, there was a backlog of incomplete vocational assessments especially for courses requiring work placements, such as childcare and health and social care, due to the pandemic restrictions. When we inspected later in the year, many learners were successfully working towards achieving their qualifications. In lessons and practical sessions, most learners made at least appropriate progress and many produced work of a higher standard. In the best cases, learners responded well to feedback from their teachers, revisiting their learning and improving on their work.
In classes, many learners recall recent learning effectively and a majority apply learning to new contexts well. Many learners engage, support and challenge each other in group discussions and respond well to verbal questions about their work.
During our core inspections. we identified that a majority of learners were starting their courses from a lower starting point than would have been expected. Overall, these learners’ knowledge and skills were not as strong as that of similar cohorts before the pandemic, reflecting the disruption to their prior learning. In particular, the majority of learners’ numeracy and wider mathematical skills were less well developed than previous cohorts and many learners did not make sufficient progress in developing their numeracy skills. This is despite more learners than usual starting college with GCSE English and mathematics qualifications at C grade or higher and fewer needing to do resits. This resource provides self-reflection questions to support teachers in further education to develop learners’ numeracy skills in a vocational context.
Many learners studying qualifications that involved external examinations told us that they were particularly anxious about sitting the examinations, especially as many did not sit any external examinations during Years 10 and 11 due to disruption caused by the pandemic. Learners particularly valued opportunities to practise extended writing tasks and undertake mock examinations as part of their preparation for external assessments. Other learners commented that they felt they had missed out on important opportunities to undertake practical sessions during periods of lockdown restrictions and felt that, despite a return to face-to-face delivery this year, they were not as confident as they would have hoped about practical work and their ability to cope on higher level programmes.
Well-being and attitudes to learning
Through our engagement activity, most colleges told us that there were much higher numbers of learners facing challenges with mental health issues than in previous years. Learners’ well-being was adversely impacted by the pandemic, and many experienced challenges arising from a wide range of well-being issues, bereavement and homelessness. This impacted on their self-esteem, and confidence, and on their participation and engagement in their learning.
In our core inspections this year, we found that the number of learners seeking support for their emotional well-being and mental health had increased substantially as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Learners benefited from accessing a comprehensive range of well-being support to discuss these issues. Most learners felt that the support they received made a positive difference to their well-being, resilience and their ability to sustain and progress in their learning.
Many learners demonstrated a strong appetite to return to college for face-to-face teaching and to benefit from the social aspects of college life. Many engaged well with additional provision that colleges put in place to develop their wider knowledge, practical skills, personal development, and employability skills in the wake of the pandemic.
Teaching and learning experiences
Most colleges offered both full-time general education and vocational courses in addition to an extensive range of part-time courses. They offered a broad range of provision at different levels. This provided learners with well-planned progression opportunities onto higher level courses, higher education or apprenticeships.
By the start of 2021-2022, all colleges returned to mainly face-to-face on-site delivery. This reflected the clear preference of most learners and staff. Nearly all colleges retained a few aspects of online or blended delivery. A few colleges cited examples where continuing a blended approach had been beneficial to learners. For example, in one college, teachers skilfully develop learners’ digital literacy skills in their vocational or academic subjects. As a result, learners demonstrate high levels of competency using digital platforms to store, record, organise and track their own learning. Nearly all colleges had a clear rationale for the hybrid approach, although in a few instances this was not communicated clearly enough to learners.
Nearly all teachers knew their learners well and built positive relationships that fostered learning. They supported learners to make at least appropriate progress towards achieving their qualifications or learning goals. Many teachers missed opportunities to build literacy and numeracy skill development into classes other than through specifically scheduled skills lessons.
Most colleges increased the face-to-face enrichment opportunities available for learners as pandemic restrictions eased. These included activities such as academy programmes linked to sports and other interests, skills competitions, guest speakers, educational visits and learner exchange programmes.
Cameo: Independent living skills (ILS) learners at Bridgend College benefit from clear learning pathways
The breadth of the ILS curriculum and the range of learning programmes at Bridgend College provide ILS learners with suitable and realistic routes into work, accessing the community and developing independence. The curriculum is based around four pathways and one supported internship route. Learners are allocated routes based on their aspirations and learning needs and learning aims support a personalised, non-accredited assessment process. Learners with moderate learning difficulties are given the opportunity to undertake meaningful work experience that supports progress towards longer-term work aspirations. In 2020-2021, these opportunities led to all learners on supported internships securing full-time paid employment.
Colleges planned their assessments and curriculum carefully in anticipation of the return of external examinations, while maintaining contingencies in case of further disruption. Many helped support and prepare learners for external assessments by increasing the frequency of formal internal assessments and ensuring that learner progress was monitored regularly. College leaders felt that they did not receive timely and clear guidance from awarding organisations, and they expressed particular concern about disparities between adaptations to assessment arrangements for academic and vocational programmes.
During this year, we also looked at the overall curriculum opportunities across schools, colleges and work-based learning for 16 to 19-year-olds across Wales. We found that there is too much variation in the opportunities for young people depending where they live. You can read more about our findings here.
Care, support and guidance
In both our core inspections, we found that the colleges generally supported their learners well throughout their time in college. This included providing support during learners’ transition into college and throughout their learning programme, as well as supporting progression into further learning or employment. Transition and support arrangements for learners with additional learning needs were generally effective and managed well.
Many colleges provided useful opportunities for learners to visit the college as part of familiarisation and preparation activities prior to formal induction programmes. Most colleges adopted a systematic approach to initial and diagnostic assessment of literacy and numeracy skills needs for all learners.
Most colleges identified a significant increase in the need for well-being support for learners during the pandemic. Many used temporary funding to employ additional well-being staff. These staff worked effectively alongside teachers and tutors to identify and provide support with issues that may be affecting learners’ well-being, attendance and progress. Learners were provided with a variety of helpful well-being support including counselling, mentoring and workshops.
Cameo: Coleg Sir Gar and Coleg Ceredigion makes effective use of integrated target setting and learner progress tracking system
The additional learning needs department at Coleg Sir Gar and Coleg Ceredigion has developed a useful screening and assessment process to help identify individual learners’ needs and inform decisions on available support options. All learners have a learning and support induction during the first two weeks of their course and then undertake an online screening process. The screening and diagnostic assessment process covers time management, reading, written work, memory concentration and organisation, social and communication skills, sensory processing, learning difficulties, medical and health conditions and previous exam arrangements. Outcomes of this process are used to creates useful class profiles for all teachers and help inform the classroom practice of teachers.
Accessing impartial advice and guidance continued to be a challenge for many learners as they left school and progressed to post-16 education. Our engagement report Engagement work – further education and adult learning in the community update – autumn 2021 highlighted that learners reported that they were not sufficiently aware of the range of progression options through information or guidance prior to applying to college. A few learners felt that the advice given by their schools focused predominantly on encouraging them to progress to the schools’ own sixth forms. Information sharing arrangements between providers are not always formalised. This means that learners and parents/carers are often asked to disclose the same information on multiple occasions when they progress onto new provision.
Learners’ understanding of issues related to radicalisation and extremism was too variable across and within colleges. In both college inspections, we found that many learners were not able to recall or demonstrate an understanding of issues related to radicalisation and extremism. Tutorial materials relating to these issues were not always adapted to meet the needs of all learners.
Leadership and management
Leaders and managers continued to respond positively to the ongoing challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic and the gradual relaxation of associated restrictions. They continued to place high importance on supporting the mental health and emotional wellbeing of learners and staff. Most colleges used additional funding from Welsh Government to invest in useful resources to improve learners’ well-being and to provide additional capacity to track and support learners’ well-being.
Colleges used Welsh Government funding under the Renew and Reform COVID-19 Recovery Plan to support learners to transition to college. Most colleges also continued to invest in strengthening their digital capacity and in upskilling staff in the effective use of technology to support teaching, learning and assessment.
Cameo: Staff at Coleg Sir Gar and Coleg Ceredigion benefit from a useful range of professional learning opportunities to help improve their digital skills
During the COVID-19 pandemic, college leaders responded quickly to the need to develop the digital skills of staff in order to continue to delivering learning within a digital learning environment. The college has strengthened its professional learning provision. Leaders have developed a comprehensive range of learning pathways for staff that deliver tailored, mentored training, in which the college encourages all staff to participate. This includes a comprehensive training programme for new governors, and a programme for teaching staff to develop their management skills.
The college’s approach to professional development encourages staff to reflect on and record their strengths and skills, providing a valuable framework for managers to discuss good practice and improvement needs. Staff can either choose to have their performance evaluated through formal observations or to support each other’s development in small groups.
Most colleges revised their self-evaluation and improvement planning arrangements in light of challenges arising from the pandemic. Many colleges also started to make greater use of peer assessment and mentoring support as part of their strategies to improve the quality of teaching.
The effects of the pandemic have accelerated the recruitment challenges many colleges were already facing. Many colleges experienced an increase in staff turnover and reported difficulties in recruiting staff to a few specialist teaching and support roles. Almost all leaders expressed difficulties recruiting Welsh-speaking staff. Staff recruitment to lower paid roles, such as learning support assistants and ancillary staff, was cited as being particularly challenging.