On your marks, get set, recruit

Competition for sixth-form pupils, and the funding they bring, is causi ng friction between schools and colleges, writes Fran Abrams
Last September a 16-year-old girl came to see staff at Wulfrun College, Wolverhampton. She would like to apply for a course at the college, she said, but she had signed a contract preventing her from doing so. Then she produced a piece of paper drawn up by her school, committing her to return there after GCSEs. The girl was told in no uncertain terms that no one could force her to return to school, and she embarked on the course of her choice. But the incident was a poignant sign of the times.

In an education world where a 16-year-old is worth £2,000 to a school or college, and where colleges that fail to meet recruitment targets can have their income cut the following year, competition is becoming increasingly fierce.

The freeing of further education colleges from local authority control has led many to rethink their previously cosy relationships with schools. In addition, new vocational courses have enabled schools to hold on to pupils who would traditionally have been lost to the colleges, and the approval of new school sixth forms - 25 in the past year - has also increased their share of the market.

For some time, the college grapevine has been buzzing with tales of unco-operative schools: senior staff members who tear down college recruitment posters from careers rooms; careers evenings to which college representatives are not invited. Although schools are legally obliged to pass on information to students about alternative forms of post-16 education, some seemed to have been failing in this duty.

Now firm evidence has been produced of the deteriorating relations between schools and colleges. This week the South East Regional Advisory Council for Further Education (Laser), will publish a survey of 84 colleges' feelings on the subject. More than a quarter said relationships with schools were "variable," "distant" or "hostile". In areas where all local schools had sixth forms, the proportion increased to almost two-thirds.

Colleges reported cases of schools refusing to pass on information and of pupils being persuaded against their best interests to stay on at school.

The flip side of the coin is the colleges' response to such antagonism. Not surprisingly, they have adopted some aggressive marketing techniques and, in some cases, have spent large sums of money promoting themselves. Seventy-five colleges told Laser they advertised in local papers, 48 on local radio, and 28 by mailing direct to homes. One - Hastings College - even bought airtime on Meridian television and considered it good value, though most recruitment is through word of mouth.

Other marketing methods have included poster advertising and even, in the case of South Thames College, handing out leaflets that entitle pupils to two meals for the price of one at Pizza Hut.

Laurie South, chief executive of Laser, is not opposed to healthy competition, but beieves the current situation may be counterproductive.

"I wouldn't want as much money to be spent on competition as at present. I think there is a better use for that money. There are people who are outside the system because they can't afford economically to survive as students," he said.

College principals argue that some students taking A-levels at school would be better off taking vocational courses at college. Martin Bateman, principal of Braintree College in Essex, is among them.

While he has amicable relations with a number of local schools, he accuses others of "moral blackmail". Students have been warned that minority courses in school could close if they do not enrol in them, and have even been told that they may have to pay for their own transport and books if they go to college, he says.

In retaliation, the college now hands out leaflets to families door-to-door and holds a series of 10 roadshows each year in towns within its area.

"We are not being terribly aggressive: we are a thriving college. But we know some youngsters are getting bad advice. These people are messing about with their lives," he says.

East Warwickshire College in Rugby, Warwickshire, has sponsored its own Midland Red bus. The "nipper"-type bus is now decorated in the college colours, blue and grey, and on the side it says: "Make East Warwickshire College your next stop." Brian Dennis,the marketing officer, believes the £700 for the paint job plus a monthly charge of about £40 was money well spent. One or two students have actually said the bus influenced their decision to approach the college, but really it is a consciousness-raising exercise.

"I used to work for a local newspaper which had a bus decorated this way, and it worked very well. So I thought, `Why not?' It is just one of many ideas," Mr Dennis said.

Schools have tended to be portrayed as the guilty parties in this scenario, but John Dunford, vice-president of the Secondary Heads Association, points out another side to the story.

The situation varies enormously from area to area, he says, but the atmosphere is at its most intense in places where there are a large number of grant-maintained schools and where competition is fierce. The fact that both college and sixth-form funding is based on recruitment does not help, he says, but in areas like his native Northumberland heads and college principals have set up forums to improve relations. If anyone's marketing oversteps the mark, then the matter will be raised at a meeting.

Mr Dunford recognises that some schools have taken the competitive spirit too far, but says this is hardly surprising. The only solution is to give responsibility for giving out information on post-16 courses to careers services, he says.

"It's no good the Government setting up a system that depends on competition, then complaining when that competition goes a bit wrong - like Sainsbury's being made to put up advertisements for Tesco," he says.