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Back to basic instincts in recruitment drive

DEAN Martin, who, for the benefit of younger readers, was a glutinous crooner whose lined face was a consumer's guide to bourbon whisky, once had a schmaltzy hit with When the swallows come back to Capistrano. As he schmoozed his way through the syrupy lyrics he gave no sign that he knew the words had a particular resonance for further education.

Although notionally about the return of his sweetheart, the real message of the song is that there are rhythms and recurring events in the natural world which provide a framework on which we can shape our lives. On further reflection, I am sure that Dino did not have a clue about his unwitting contribution to widening participation.

Whether it's swallows returning, the first cuckoo or the longest day, we note the passing milestones in the year. The annual frenzy of spring cleaning begins not on any official date, but when subliminal, instinctive switches are tripped. When the first conkers fell from the horse chestnut trees, mothers used to respond to primal urges and sealed their children in brown paper smeared with goose grease. They did not release them until the daffodils came out in the following year.

What we in FE have so far failed to do is to link some of these naturally recurring phenomena to an irresistible desire to enrol. We exhort people to sign up without associating enrolment with a natural, familiar event, so it remains an act of will, not an instinctive response. You don't need to find a logical or thematic connection between the trigger and the action.

Think what the travel industry has managed so brilliantly. "If this is turkey risotto, it must be time to plan the summer holiday" is now a piece of received wisdom, brought about and sustained by the industry's determined marketing campaigns which bring brochures thudding on to the mat before the Christmas decorations are down, and fill television screens with images of sun and sand while we are still gathering up the wrapping paper.

We put our brains through the wringer trying to find new ways of attracting students. Posters, mailshots, press advertisements, radio flashes, leaflets, beermats, calendars, ballpoint pens, banners, even the nozzles of petrol pumps have been dragged into marketing campaigns, but unless the timing is right, unless the target audience is readyand receptive, you waste your energies.

One of the very first enrolments to the Open College of the North West, now 25 years old and getting on for a million enrolments later, came from a telephone engineer, working down a hole outside the college. He was checking the operation of the telephone line when he overheard a conversation about this new opportunity for adults, liked what he heard, and walked into college to sign on. He explained later that he hadn't realised that he wanted something new, certainly not a college course, it was just that the idea suddenly and inexplicably seemed exactly right for him.

Our task is to slip the notion of lifelong learning into the nation's subconscious, to bring about the same Pavlovian response to a range of reliable stimuli.

We could start by working on the following: gathering field mushrooms in September and picking blackberries in early October are under-exploited national activities; the sacking of the first football league manager of the season should not pass without provoking a knee-jerk reaction to enrol at the nearest college; the start of the summer repeats of The Two Ronnies should drive people out of the house and into the classroom.

FE should become the nation's comfort blanket when faced with the regular stresses of life in Britain: a death on Coronation Street; a delay on Virgin trains; a new haircut for David Beckham; another Rod Stewart tour; a dreary revelation about Camilla Parker-Bowles; and the publication of the umpteenth report banging the drum for sixth-form colleges are all obvious examples.

As in the case of the telephone engineer, it is not a question of sliding a course into a need that is felt, like a hand into a glove. It is more a matter of making serendipity links. When November 5 automatically makes people think "bangers and catherine wheels today, college tomorrow"; when a bunch of fresh snowdrops turns a young man's fancy to thoughts of study; when you can't look at a Valentine card without seeing a prospectus; when the family tortoise emerging from hibernation means it's time for evening classes; and when the return of the swallows to Capistrano sets off a rush for application forms, we will have cracked the problem.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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