Enrolment: where aspiration meets reality

It’s a crazy way to start the year; enrolling all our students over a few days in late August before we can start teaching them. Enrolment is a major cross-college team effort which requires every member of staff to do something different from their usual job. It also requires a small army of temporary staff. It’s a bit like asking all the musicians in an orchestra to go out and sell the tickets, lay out the chairs and welcome every audience member before their big concert.

It’s hard work and it’s very important. We know that for applicants this is where life-changing decisions are made. It’s a time when they need to draw on all their self-awareness, to reflect on what is best for them and decide how to build on their success so far. Some may be dealing with a sense of failure or shattered hopes and many are feeling under pressure to make their mind up quickly.

As sixth form providers our ideal is that the young person we’re about to enrol is well-informed because they have already been through a thorough, considered process of evaluating and selecting a college and a course. We hope that they have already visited us, discussed the options with professional careers advisors, been guided and advised by us and maybe even attended our summer induction programme long before results day. In this scenario, enrolment is the final step in an extended process where, following actual GCSE results, we can confirm either a planned programme or a Plan B or fall-back programme.

And for many students this is how it goes; a smooth positive experience, confirming the outcome of all the prior discussion and combining this with a warm welcome to an exciting new place of study.

But for some it can be an anxious and stressful moment either because they have disappointing results which require a major reassessment of their options or because they are a ‘walk-in’ student, not previously known to us, who has to condense the whole advice, guidance and decision-making process into a very short period of time. When both of these apply, it just adds to the pressure. In a highly competitive market with more selective providers, there is more ‘shopping around’ and more ‘being asked to leave’ mid-course and this volatility around transitions is becoming more common both at 16 and at 17.

In these cases, with all the processes of interview, guidance and enrolment telescoped into a single meeting, it is really important that we preserve the integrity and quality of our system.  We want to provide objective information about course content and progression opportunities and our starting point is always the learner’s interests and aspirations and a commitment to offer them a programme which they can succeed on and which moves them forward.

All our courses have entry requirements and many of these have become more complex in recent years with a combination of point score average thresholds and subject requirements. These criteria are set for good reasons; not to keep people out but to ensure that students are well equipped for progression.

However, young people do not all present at enrolment with consistent or clear profiles. Many students have erratic, aberrant GCSE grades or a ‘spiky’ profile. For instance it’s quite common for students to get a higher grade for GCSE English literature than for GCSE English language (which is a crucial indicator). This year we’ve seen many applicants with a much higher grade in GCSE Additional Science than in their Core Science – what are we to make of an AC double science grade if our entry requirement for AS sciences is a minimum of BB? Sometimes it’s clear that one or two very low grades in less relevant subjects are dragging down a student’s average point score and that without them they still have a much higher score across a good number of subjects.

So we sometimes have to make fine judgements about what prior achievement is telling us and we take into account a number of factors and delve as much as we can into unit scores and look for any ‘highs’ which might compensate for particular ‘lows’. We also draw on references and reports to inform our discussion although the quality of school references is highly variable; some are really thorough but some are worryingly uninformative.

Students and their families are expected to digest a lot of information and make various choices and calculations, often under pressure and sometimes counter to their existing preconceptions. The involvement of parents or guardians is crucial – they can make a real difference for better or for worse and I have offered some advice for them in a separate post.

Sometimes the enrolment conversation can become a battle of wills with the applicant resisting the advice they are getting with sheer assertiveness. We hear a lot of: “I know I can do it…Just give me a chance” or “I’ve had personal problems…”

Of course we know that students can turn things round and we understand mitigating circumstances for underachievement. A determination to learn the lessons and bounce back is admirable and we want to build on that. But we need to balance this against the reality of achievement and make an informed professional judgement about a young person’s chance of success, based on our experience. We do use discretion but we always need to justify this. It’s because we know the cost of failure for the student themselves that we are so careful with our judgements.

So, welcome to the meeting of aspiration and reality. Enrolment may be stressful for all concerned but it is a vital part of post-16 progression and it can pave the way for a successful academic year.

See also:

How to choose a sixth form (August 2014)

How to make a strong college application (February 2015)

Your college interview (February 2015)

A parent’s guide to sixth form enrolment (August 2015)

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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