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Defending FE's honour

"What's in a name?" Shakespeare's Juliet famously pondered. "That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

A fair point, perhaps. But, understandably distracted by the small matters of her crush on that cute Montague bloke and the imminent bloodbath, Juliet was missing the thrust of the argument somewhat.

What if an enterprising florist decided one day to start advertising his carnations as roses? And it's not beyond the realms of possibility that a panic-stricken husband, scanning the petrol station forecourt for a floral peace offering, might absent-mindedly head home with a red-painted dandelion, as long as it was wrapped in some nice paper with a "rose" label attached.

Cue the inevitable allegations that the rose brand has become tainted, tarnished by its association with limp lilies and flaccid fuchsias.

Ridiculous as it sounds, this is precisely the scenario colleges find themselves in - and they don't even have the Trade Descriptions Act to fall back on.

Frustrated by an increasing number of school sixth forms erroneously marketing themselves as "sixth-form colleges", the Sixth Form Colleges' Forum (SFCF) has decided to take action. It is considering rebranding itself and creating a "Kitemark" to protect the identity of "official", incorporated sixth-form colleges.

And this isn't just about snobbery: sixth-form colleges operate under quite different rules from schools, being able to borrow money but having to fork out for VAT, which the SFCF reckons costs the average college #163;300,000 a year. Yet still they manage to outperform schools by most measures, and have earned a justified reputation for academic excellence, which they are understandably keen to protect.

It's not just sixth-form colleges who are worried about their name being taken in vain. Research last year commissioned by the Association of Colleges (AoC) found that more than 760 schools were incorrectly calling their sixth forms a "college". Compare this with the 219 general FE colleges in existence and you have some idea of the scale of the public relations challenge facing the sector. Little wonder, then, that the AoC is also investigating what it can do to defend the honour of its members.

The Department for Education doesn't seem too fussed. When quizzed about the name of the planned Connell Sixth Form College in Manchester, which will actually be a post-16 free school, it simply responded that there "is no legal restriction on using the name sixth-form college" - a metaphorical shrug of the shoulders as if to suggest they don't know what all the fuss is about.

And that, perhaps, is understandable. When the term college is used to denote a massive range of institutions, from independent schools Eton and Winchester to the constituent parts of Cambridge and Oxford universities, who are FE principals to say they are the only bona fide owners of the keys to the college title?

It is perfectly natural that FE colleges don't want to see rogue traders share their name, piggybacking off their strong reputation. But in an increasingly tangled sector where we have colleges offering degrees, schools offering Higher National Diplomas and even, in one case, a school within a college, trying to provide clarity in a form that will be intelligible to the average parent will be about as easy as arranging a seating plan for a Montague-Capulet wedding.

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