As a marketing expert, Ruth Sparkes found the job of helping her offspring find the right FE institution an eye-opening experience. 

It’s that time of year when colleges are flinging open their doors and inviting prospective students in, to ‘taste’ their wares.

The summer and ‘mop-up’ campaigns are but a distant and expensive memory, and the new student recruitment cycle has started, all over again.

Schools have distributed their Year 11s predicted GCSE grades.

Recruiting students needs a joined-up approach, now more than ever

Most colleges will already have published their glossy new prospectuses for the 2016/17 in-take.

Some colleges will already have a few open events under their belts, applications will hopefully be rolling or dribbling in, and some colleges will have started interviewing potential students, and have made conditional offers.

This is what happens every year and it ought to be a well-oiled machine — but, in my experience as a parent this year, for the first time on other side of the institution’s doors — I can see why parents choose school sixth forms over standalone sixth forms or FE colleges.

Team Sparkes doesn’t have the ‘luxury’ of a school sixth form to fall back on, so we’ve had to persevere, even though we’ve hit quite a few obstacles.

Team objective — find a good college within an hour’s travelling that can offer A-levels in maths, further maths, economics, French and law.

We live in a county with 18 standalone mainstream colleges (either FE or sixth form) so it shouldn’t be too difficult — you would think.

College A — we enjoyed a fabulous welcome at the open event, staff on hand to answer questions, the principal was lively, engaging and accessible, but can’t offer economics and would love to offer French — but needs more applicants.

Unfortunately, French was not an option on the college’s online application form. So, it didn’t matter how many prospective students were urged to apply — they couldn’t. It took two phone calls and an email to the principal to rectify this.

The application has still not been made because — “It’s a ridiculous form, the worst of the lot I’ve had to fill in — I might go back to it.”

If this was your college, how many of your prospective students would persevere?

College B — an over-subscribed sixth form, which can offer all the subjects, but unfortunately offers its open evenings in the same week, and requires applications before Christmas. (Team Sparkes couldn’t attend open evening week due to the key member being on a GCSE-controlled assessment in Shropshire).

College B has booked us on a ‘tour’, but says: “This is just a tour, without any opportunity to speak to teaching staff or explore course choices.” Hmmm…

College C — This time last month, College C wasn’t even on the radar, but has since been fully investigated and is currently top of the list.

All subjects are offered, travel is doable and the application form was the least onerous of the three — it even had a clever and warm automated response that sent out a thank you, and an interview time and date.

This is just a selection of what we’ve encountered — we’ve discounted a grammar school in a neighbouring county, which had poor and incoherent careers advice, and inaccurate course information.

As college marketing staffing levels and budgets are squeezed to a shadow of their former selves, recruiting students needs a joined-up approach, now more than ever.

This is only one part of marketing your college, but, put yourselves in the shoes of prospective students, and ensure that barriers to interview are removed.

Is your course information up to date? Is your online application form seamless and relevant? Are you offering courses in your prospectus and on your website that haven’t run in years? Are the people answering your telephone under the impression that student recruitment is someone else’s job?

It really doesn’t matter how beautiful your prospectus is, or how good your website looks on a smartphone, if you can’t deliver simple assistance to teenagers to help them to apply to your college — they will find an alternative.