Tradition dictates course choices for the majority of students, not marketing or market forces, reports Adrian Cross.
The chasm between academic and vocational qualifications is widening rather than narrowing in post-compulsory education, new research shows. This is despite the merger of the Departments of Employment and Education and successive governmental initiatives to reduce the skills gap.
Academic reputation is still the single most important influence on 16-year-olds when it comes to choice of institution, according to a study in the Oxford Review of Education. And, though further education and sixth-form colleges achieve higher exam results than sixth forms, young people still believe schools are best.
The study by researchers at the Universities of Southampton and Wales show that the reforms of the past 20 years have hardly dented the entrenched attitudes of school-leavers to colleges.
It is an issue Nicholas Tate, chief executive of the new Qualification and Curriculum Authority, has pledged to tackle.
Despite the enormous number of FE qualifications on offer - 16,000 at the last count - most pupils still make FE decisions based on family tradition.
Market forces and the competitive spirit leave the majority cold and simple practical matters predominate: whether or not the particular course is available and the time it takes to get to and from the college.
Open days and prospectuses have a relatively minor impact on 16-plus decisions, merely helping students to confirm that their inclinations are the right ones.
The report is a national survey of the decisions made by those approaching the end of compulsory schooling and the influence of FE institutions' marketing on those choices. It was funded by the Higher Education Information Services Trust and is of crucial interest to the FE sector given that four-fifths of secondary school pupils aim to go on to further education.
Two-thirds of the sample were intending to choose academic courses. The report reveals that young people continue to see A-levels and not vocational courses as the route into higher education. It is clear that urging universities to welcome vocational qualifications, as proposed by Sir Ron Dearing, would not in itself raise their status.
The study concludes that the role of the family in the decisions of school-leavers has declined since the Further and Higher Education Act in 1992 which required FE providers to compete for funding. In spite of waning influence, parents still set the parameters of choice for their children.
Friends' opinions are not a large factor in students' choice of course. The major influence is teachers, particularly careers teachers. School-leavers trust their opinions more than those of their parents.
Forty-two per cent had begun thinking about their options before Year 11, some as early as Year 9.
The study identified some striking class differences. Middle-class students begin thinking about their future earlier than their working-class counterparts who sign up or are coerced into signing up for careers interviews in Year 11. An increasing number go on to further education, many considering part-time study. A greater proportion of girls opt for academic courses.
The researchers conclude that there is a risk of marketing campaigns hitting pupils long after they have made their decisions and it remains unclear to what extent the pupils are making informed choices. It may be that advice from school-careers programmes is subject to prejudice and is a diluted form of the information available.
"Post-16 Markets Projects" by Nicholas H. Foskett and Anthony J. Hesketh in the Oxford Review of Education.