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Can-do image is a vital ingredient

The college sector has an image problem. Talented people with career dilemmas are too rarely attracted by jobs in colleges. These young people want an industry that will value and reward them, one which offers public prestige, career development and is future-facing and well-respected.

The college sector is far from that in people's minds. A report by the Work Foundation and several articles in the press have depicted colleges as shabby and incompetent, too bewildered by policy change to focus on students' needs. The report said "a respected and successful FE system would look very different from the one we've got". The sector, it goes on, is "a national disgrace".

On the basis of being "stuck with a hopeless teacher in a dreary classroom at a forlorn FE college" the author of an article in the New Statesman writes off the entire sector. Politicians and civil servants persist in the view that the sector has a propensity to feel sorry for itself, and to blame others for its problems - all that in spite of the effort of the sector's national bodies to counter this perception.

Those who work in the sector know that what happens in colleges is mostly top-notch. That students also know this is shown by the Learning and Skills Council's surveys of learner satisfaction.

One of the startling improvements in the past few years is the improvement of buildings and the environment. Some learners still have to put up with a sub-standard environment - but this is now the exception, not the rule.

Managers at the Association for College Management are hard-working and dedicated. So, does our dowdy public image matter if the reality testifies otherwise?

Yes, it does - because in different ways politicians, civil servants, employers, the media and young people making career choices influence the success and the prospects of the sector.

We rail against a lack of media profile and negative headlines as though the world owes us a good image. But it doesn't. No fairy godmother, ministry or newspaper editor can transform our public presence. We must do that ourselves with our own skills.

Cross-sector unity and common purpose will be critical to our success. At the bullseye of our new brand will be our defining values: a service shaped by learners' needs. Student-centredness has become integral to our everyday expectations. You will have noticed how your expectations of a bank, supermarket, GP's surgery have risen in the past 15 years. We must not underestimate how this culture change must penetrate our service and our brand.

Lip service won't do. Think, for example, of that clever line in the new BUPA advertisement: "The patient is ready to see you now, doctor," or the way that the Royal College of Midwives has yoked the interests of mothers and babies to those of the profession. Notice how often the RCM's spokeswoman is on news and current affairs programmes - always portrayed positively, and focused on patients' needs as the means of advancing the interests of midwives and their profession.

Students thrive best in a culture in which staff are valued, nurtured, supported and encouraged to grow. Some readers might regard such considerations of image as superficial and think I have spent too much time listening to Alastair Campbell. But nothing in this argument detracts from the critical importance of raising the quality of the service itself. A great brand is a combination of a great product and a great projection of it.

Feisty national organisations ready to fight for more resources - especially for more pay - are a must for the sector's success. And our endeavours should not be mutually exclusive. We need to work on all fronts, but this should include the cultivation of a fresh image of the sector as dynamic, excellent, responsive, modern, problem-solving and people-centred.

Together, we can achieve that.

Nadine Cartner is education director at the Association for College Management

The ACM annual conference in Birmingham on March 25-26 will discuss the above and other issues affecting the college sector. For more information telephone 0116 275 5076

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