Providing a holistic guidance system for part-time and evening students is a challenge for any further education establishment.
At Cardonald College in Glasgow. every full-time student has a guidance tutor and guidance time for one-to-one meetings, but its 3,000 part-time and evening students do not.
However, since the launch of its Guidance 247 programme three years ago, the college's four student advisers have been offering evening and part-time students college information, financial advice and course and personal support through initial email contact. The aim is to improve admission and retention rates.
Guidance 247 allows pre-entry, new and continuing students to contact the college's information centre on any issue concerning college work and get a response within 24 hours, even over weekends and holidays.
The college's head of student support, Kate Sangster, says: "There had always been that gap in guidance provision until we secured some pound;16,000 European Social Fund monies to pilot this scheme, which has since been mainstreamed.
"Although we have not evaluated the system officially, there is no doubt it has improved student retention.
"As the first college in Scotland to adopt Guidance 247, HM Inspectorate of Education described its implementation as 'sector leading' in the inspectors' report two years ago. We have disseminated the idea to other colleges, who have been very enthusiastic."
One advantage of the system is that it allows initial anonymity for students making contact over personal issues, such as bereavement. Often students are unsure of the role of guidance staff, imagining them to be concerned only with course or college-related issues. More and more, they are coming to realise that student advisers can help them on wider or more personal issues.
Careers adviser Marie Anderson says: "We probably get between six and 20 emails a day, on everything from looking for course information to financial and personal advice."
Evening and part-time students are informed about Guidance 247 at their induction classes and receive a card with email contact addresses.
"Some students just want to keep the contact at email. With other students it goes beyond that to one-to-one chats, depending on the nature of the enquiry or the issue," Mrs Anderson says.
"It is never a substitute for face-to-face meetings but it is a way of letting a student know it's all right to call in for a chat and to encourage them to do so. It's here to augment our service," she says.
The system is very useful for new students and those still only thinking about college courses. "We have students with confidence issues about even coming into the college," Mrs Anderson says.
"Guidance 247 can provide an initial contact before they cross the threshold, thus making it easier for them actually to do it. They can, and do, email us to set up a meeting about learning support or whatever their particular issue might be."
The four student advisers regularly visit community venues to market the college, and they make sure their audiences are aware of Guidance 247 and know that they can make use of it even though they are not yet college students.
The system is proving particularly useful because of the nature of FE college structures. A student may have a college enquiry which his evening class tutor cannot help with because he is a school teacher doing evening work and not a full-time member of the college staff with information at his fingertips.
Many part-time students may only come into college for a couple of hours a week and so do not build relationships with other students or college staff. For them Guidance 247 can prove vital.
"We had a distressed student who emailed to say she wasn't attending because of personal issues," Mrs Anderson says. "We encouraged her to come in. We could give her both personal and course-related advice. She was actually overwhelmed by the work pressure which had built up because of the personal issues.
"The intervention worked because Guidance 247 had allowed her to access the student advisers at the initial level which suited her. She was retained."
Another case, which led to an admission, involved a mature but severely dyslexic woman who said she wanted to be a primary teacher. Responding to her email enquiry, the student advisers checked with the General Teaching Council for Scotland and teacher training colleges before meeting her. In the event, the woman had not realised a four-year degree course would be necessary and, through discussion, it emerged that her real desire was not necessarily to teach (which would prove difficult with her severe dyslexia) but to work with children. She is now enrolled at the college on a childcare course.