Brand loyalty: how to repackage the FE sector

Earlier this month in the pages of TES, branding expert Richard Gillingwater made the case for rebuilding further education's image. Here, seven senior FE figures respond to his plans to unleash the full power of the sector, and suggest a few ideas of their own
24th October 2014, 1:00am


Brand loyalty: how to repackage the FE sector

Andy Gannon
Director of policy, public relations and research for the 157 Group

We are pleased to see further education gaining prominence in both policy and the public imagination. The fact that "Brand FE" is receiving attention from politicians and the media demonstrates the importance of colleges and their role in the skills system.

We have long argued that, although millions of people improve their skills through FE every year, more should be done to improve national understanding of the sector's importance - to skills, to jobs and to economic growth.

If a rebrand is required to do that, it must take place alongside the changes that are already under way, to ensure the ongoing improvement of practice. It is quality that ultimately determines reputation.

We must build on the strong local reputations of colleges by giving them the autonomy to innovate and to drive their own improvement. We must allow them, through equal treatment in funding and regulation, to prove their value within an education system that values and encourages diversity.

David Harbourne
Director of policy and research at the Edge Foundation

Richard Gillingwater got it spot on. If we're going to rebrand further education, we have to target those with influence at a national level. Most leading politicians and journalists went to university. Hardly any of them studied at an FE college. Even fewer took vocational qualifications.

Because they have no personal experience of FE, influencers regard it as the least important part of our education system. It's symptomatic of the academic-vocational divide that has dogged this country - unlike Germany, Austria and Switzerland - for well over a century. However, Martin Dickson also got it right when he said that Leeds City College has a strong brand locally. That's true of FE in general.

So how do we turn a strong local brand into a strong national identity? We need a single, constant message. From Newcastle to Newquay, from Kent to Carlisle, FE fuels our economy.

Gill Clipson
Deputy chief executive of the Association of Colleges

Colleges have strong local reputations and can be seen every day working alongside employers, local enterprise councils and other stakeholders to ensure that skills needs are being met. They have an impressive story to tell, in light of constant funding constraints.

However, the profile of colleges can be eroded by policymakers and public figures who insist on referring to vocational education as a route for the "less academic". This is coupled with a lack of coherence and consistency about whether the curriculum should be supporting a general preparation for work or specific training - it doesn't help to promote the purpose of the further education sector.

Policy and rhetoric should support colleges in becoming the recognised leaders in gold-standard technical and professional education.

Kirstie Donnelly
UK managing director of City amp; Guilds

Wouldn't it be great if all we needed to change the UK's opinion of further education was an eye-catching advertising campaign? If only it were that easy.

The truth is that most of the issues in our sector come from decades of instability and misinformation. In spite of endless policy changes and government tampering, we've created a world-class system; the results should speak for themselves.

That doesn't mean that image is irrelevant. Our own research shows that the main reason parents don't encourage their children to enter FE is because they don't understand it. That's why university is frequently the default. We obviously need to get better at showing people the countless benefits of skills education. But I don't think FE needs a rebrand; we just need to be better at telling our story.

Sarah Simons
FE lecturer and TES columnist

A bigger issue than the external perception of further education as the underdog is the habitual acceptance of that role by many within the sector. There's a comfort in flying below the radar.

It's easy to lose focus on the bigger picture when the local one is rosy. Individual colleges must place themselves within the broader, complex landscape and ask how their success contributes to FE's national reputation.

Colleges know they need to participate in changing the perception of the sector and some already are; what's absent is wider collaborative discussion. How can the sector unify and begin a conversation with those who guide young people towards the right paths? How can we instigate a dialogue with schools, parents and young people to introduce the idea that there are many post-16 options? Let's shout together and hope we are heard.

David Hughes
Chief executive of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education

Richard Gillingwater is right that the standing of further education is lower than it should be, particularly when compared with schools and universities. There are lots of reasons for this, but one is that most people in power went to school and university, so few have been learners in the FE sector.

I would argue that the best way to improve the reputation of FE is with a concerted effort to attract adults into flexible and relevant courses that support them in getting on in work and in life.

A new, attractive offer to meet the lifelong learning needs of an ageing population will bring more people into contact with FE - and we know that once they taste it, they will like it.

Stewart Segal
Chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers

Clearly we need to increase respect for what the sector delivers, but let us not forget that we come from a position of strength: some of our main products, such as apprenticeships, have satisfaction levels that most brands would envy.

However, we do have a way to go in building the recognition among schools, young people and parents. I am not sure that brand development is the answer to that problem, but, if we assume it is, then we need to be promoting the right brand values.

Further education will only be successful if it emphasises what makes it unique - a complex mix of organisations that delivers a personalised and flexible programme of learning, underpinned by links to work and careers.

Perhaps we should change FE's name and call it the "education and training sector" - this would celebrate the wide variety of organisations involved in delivering the training that the economy needs.

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Register for free to read more

You can read two more articles on Tes for free this month if you register using the button below.

Alternatively, you can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters

Already registered? Log in

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Subscribe to read more

You can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters