Implementation studies on college-school links, just published by the Higher Still Development Unit, provide the latest confirmation that good communications and good management are the critical factors in ensuring benefits for students, staff and institutions.
The report draws on case studies involving 13 colleges and 25 schools in nine education authorities. It concludes that "successful link activities depend on good planning and careful attention to communication, involve regular reviews of progress and are clear in their focus and purpose".
Success does not depend on geography or size. But the study did find that "links work best where there is active support and leadership by senior managers".
The report adds: "It was pointed out by all involved that continued systematic and focused management was needed."
One commentator summarised the link activities as a result of "negotiation, imitation and persuasion".
The report goes on: "There were some practical difficulties. For example, some assistant headteachers had no dedicated timetabled time for link activity administration. Answerphones and faxes were much in use as a result.
"Where management time was limited, it tended to be prioritised to essential large-scale planning meetings which aimed to ensure viable sets of students for programmes from various schools, and for managing guidance activities in the home institution to ensure good student decision making, induction and transition."
Student selection, a haphazard activity in the past, also emerged as a key ingredient.
In one case study involving guaranteed access by a college to FE courses for pupils in 10 schools, the report observed that "compared with the earlier unpopular link courses, the main factor governing the success of the scheme was perceived to be the care taken to identify the students for whom the scheme was suited".
"Getting the right learner" is also important for students embarking on open learning programmes. But when one college, in a more traditional link, laid on National Certificate modules in 1996-97 for over 300 students from five mainstream secondaries and for 25 young people from five special schools and units, "there was still a tendency for those selected to be less academic, reinforcing perceptions of what the college had to offer".
Special needs students pose particular challenges. In one case study of a college's links with nine special schools, the lecturers felt that they had to do more to achieve "a more integrated system of methodology and teaching styles between schools and the college". They also thought "staff development in this area would be increasingly important to maintain a continuity of curriculum and objectives."