In the dim and distant past, there wasn’t a lot of choice post-16.
However, Sixth Form and FE colleges that have to recruit half their students every year have developed good marketing programmes. Students are coming up to their GCSE results in August aware that they have options and keen to exercise their right to choose.
In many areas, the colleges are winning the battle – because they are the ones listening to students and giving them what they are asking for. They are using their economies of scale to offer the facilities students want – from well-equipped video and recording studios to high class sporting teams. They are attracting the best teachers from 11-18 schools (‘No Y9! Great!’) and let their large department teams focus on teaching 2 year groups rather than 7. They emphasis the social benefits of having just 2 year groups present. They have relaxed rules on uniform and a university-like focus on learning over appearance (think lots of red hair and piercings…).
Oh, and they are targeting parents. Schools don’t realise this and think that students are making the choice in isolation, but the colleges have spent a lot of time and energy trying to remove any fears that parents have of a poorer education. They push their high positions in league tables (check out Farnborough, Hills Road, Cambridge and Winstanley Colleges), they emphasise their pastoral and discipline support (‘we don’t let them slack off’) and they offer careers advice to match the best school Sixth Forms. They offer ‘parent information days’ to offer individual reassurance.
Both private and state school sixth forms are going to have to work harder in the next few months. The recession is hitting private school parents hard and saving thousands through a state sixth form college is a tempting option. State sixth forms are seeing their sixth form funding cut to parity with sixth form colleges by 2015. And with the loss of EMA, the number of students staying on post-16 has dropped for the first time in years.
What can schools do? Here are a few tips (please suggest more!)
1. Listen to your Y10 and Y11 students. Don’t assume that they are happy with the transition to your Sixth Form. Carry out focus groups and interviews early and encourage honesty. Ask them to suggest a ‘top ten’ of what they’d like to see in your Sixth Form and take the opportunity to find out how they are researching alternatives – what media are going to influence their choices? You can use the same media to recruit students from other schools.
2. Listen to parents. Set up some focus groups to find out what parents really think of your Sixth Form and other alternatives. What are their concerns? Talk to some parents who sent students to other schools – why did they do this?
3. Research the competition. How are colleges and other Sixth Forms selling their services? Do you have copies of their prospectuses? Do you know what they say at interviews (ask some of your students if not)? How do they make themselves distinctive?
4. Innovate. What can you offer to parents and students that will differentiate your school? Examples include offering curriculum innovations such as the International Baccalaureate or Pre-U or supplementary studies such as the Extended Project Qualification or the Open University’s YASS courses. And don’t be afraid to think the unthinkable. You are allowed to add vocational subjects and relax your dress code!
5. Sell the benefits of your Sixth Form by using Sixth Formers. Link your Y10 and Y11 students to Sixth Formers and let them see what it’s really like to be in a Sixth Form. This can take the form of lesson shadowing, teambuilding events, joint sporting events or even something as simple as holding joint assemblies.Do the same with parents and external candidates – let your Sixth Formers take the lead in any Y10 and Y11 events (including Parents Evenings!) and develop case studies of your best Sixth Formers for use in wider media. Have you thought of setting up a blog where a few selected Sixth Formers can talk of their experiences?
6. Keep communicating. Make sure all potential students and parents know your Sixth Form results, the innovations you are making and the facilities on offer – and don’t forget your current students (I’d never seen my school’s Sixth Form library for example!) Make sure you communicate these benefits repeatedly through your prospectus, advertising website and social media (really important for talking to students!).
7. Make it personal for both current students and external ones! Arrange to talk to all current parents and students at the start of Y11. Listen to any individual concerns and let them know if you can address them as soon as possible. And once someone displays interest in your school from outside, make sure you get their contact details and keep talking to them.