Colleges are failing to woo students to vocational study. Ian Nash reports
College campaigns to raise the status of vocational studies are failing to lure 16-year-old school-leavers from academic courses, a report on the most detailed research into school-leavers' attitudes warns this week.
The University of Southampton School of Education research says as young people have more choice of courses and institutions they are more inclined to choose the traditional academic route.
A national survey of attitudes shows that four out of 10 people start to think about their post-16 options while very young, often while still at primary school. This is usually due to parental encouragement. Parents are highly traditional and see the current sixth-form as superior to sixth-form colleges. General further education is bottom of the pile.
The research suggests Government initiatives to promote vocational studies have failed. It underlines the importance of initiatives, including the inquiries by Sir Ron Dearing and Exeter College principal John Capey to raise the status of vocational qualifications.
Colleges add to their difficulties by starting their recruitment campaigns far too late, the research shows. Most target Year 11, though some try during Year 10. But by then prejudices are already firmly in students' minds.
Colleges should be trying to influence choice in Year 9 or earlier, the researchers, Nicholas Foskett and Anthony Hesketh, argue in a report on the research published this week.
"Not only is there a growing risk of marketing campaigns hitting the market when the choice process has largely concluded but, of more concern, the potential of marketing material to influence the choices of young people is also being diluted," they say.
New pressures following the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act have made potential students more critical of what is on offer. "For the first time in their educational careers, the pendulum of power in the decision-making process has swung in favour of the pupils themselves, although they may not in fact realise this position of strength," they add.
Parental influence over post-16 choices declines sharply with age. It remains strongest with middle-class children, girls and those opting for the academic route. But even those who "think for themselves" are staunchly traditional.
While 80 per cent stay on full-time and 6 per cent part-time, the majority see academic study as superior. Those who mix vocational and academic studies see this as an academic pathway. "Vocational pathways are not viewed as a potential route into higher education," the researchers say.
Colleges were often misguided on what was good or bad promotional material. Earlier research had shown that many colleges lean heavily on high-quality prospectuses. But the latest study shows that while 39 per cent of pupils say they were a "general factor" in making choices, only 6 per cent specifically said they helped.
Pupils said advertising must focus more on the organisation of courses and the range of options available. The research also shows that while colleges had developed expertise in "short-term" marketing and promotion, such as mailshots and information booths in town centres, most failed to use them for effective long-term strategies.
The research findings will concern ministers as it shows a stubborn resistance to vocational qualifications as a route to higher education. "The Government intention of raising the status and value of vocational qualifications has not had any real impact on student choices," the researchers say.
The three main reasons for choosing to study post-16 are to enhance job or career prospects, to go to university or simply to continue studying at any level. Girls are more ambitious academically and boys are more likely to study for its own sake.
"Our data shows that pupils have bought into the idea of being active consumers in an education market-place," said Nick Foskett, whose research, supported by the Higher Education Information Services Trust, forms the basis for a national conference on recruitment in London this week.
"But it is interesting to note that they still take a fairly traditional view of the value of academic as opposed to vocational pathways," he concluded.