As ministers urge colleges to trawl ever wider for students, Huw Richards looks at the success of a one-stop shop on a local high street
THERE are busier spots than this junction in Walthamstow, east London, but not many.
To the west stretches High Street - reputedly the longest street market in Europe - where some white stallholders display the opportunism of their breed by shouting special offers in Urdu. A block to the south is Walthamstow Central station, with two million passengers a year. Bang on the junction is the main Post Office, where queues regularly stretch on to the pavement outside.
The newcomer, next door to the Post Office, is The Learning Shop, Waltham Forest College's window on the main commercial centre of its catchment area. Launched in October, it can look forward to a ceremonial opening and full hours early in the new year.
Thus is Waltham Forest following one of the marketing trends of the 1990s. Nadine Cartner, a policy adviser at the Association of Colleges who is compiling a directory of access schemes, said: "It is an idea that started with colleges setting up stalls in shopping centres. I remember running a stall in Hammersmith Broadway for Hammersmith and West London College eight or nine years ago. Since then a lot of colleges have taken on permanent premises."
Andy Westwood, Waltham Forest's director of marketing, said: "It is about telling people we are here for you and will adapt to what you need, rather than expecting them to come to us. Waltham Forest's main site, forbiddingly monumental in style, and about a mile from the centre, hardly serves for this.
"The aim is that dropping in should become as natural and easy as going into a bank or post office."
Making that happen is the job of centre manager Janice Taylor and her team of receptionists, advisers, information technologists and project managers.
They are now getting around 100 callers a week, a total which she expects to double in 1999. Many people arrive knowing what they want:
"They are very focused, looking to improve their skills and career prospects. But being here makes it much easier for them to reach us."
Evidence on passing trade is as yet anecdotal, but the shop has been designed with a spacious area at the front where callers can sit and pick up college literature, to encourage rather than deter would-be students.
The college also moved its Tecnova project - a scheme to help small businesses with information technology run with the London East Asian Business Association - to the shop.
Tecnova's manager Lizzie O'Grady said: "It is much better to be here, in the middle of the people we deal with. It makes us much more approachable."
Janice Taylor expects local businesses to become significant users - staff will soon start leafleting and dropping in to chat to shopkeepers and stallholders.
Impact is hard to measure after only a few months, but she is encouraged by the response to the information technology courses: "The first two filled up very fast on the basis of posters in our window." Waltham Forest is in for the long term, having taken the site for 10 years.
And they can draw encouragement from the experience of other colleges.
Jim Walsh, course information and admissions co-ordinator of London's City and Islington College, said of their two drop-in centres: "We are able to capture many more enquiries than previously and can offer an integrated approach and a filter for enquiries and applications."
Pamela Breckenridge, of Norwich City College, which runs the Norwich Learning Shop with five other providers, said that it received 20,000 visitors in its first year and attracted comments such as: "Without the Learning Shop I wouldn't have found my course."
She pointed to a sizeable group of potential students who are thinking about joining a course but have not yet organised themselves to do so.
Norwich also has a lesson for other colleges thinking beyond city centre sites. The college has opened a centre on a city housing estate with traditionally low participation rates.