Concerns that FE is not the first choice for many prospective students have prompted the Association of Colleges (AoC) to start up a new group to improve the sector’s image.
Aaron Hussey, the organisation’s director of communications, said that his team deals with several calls every week from colleges seeking advice on how to protect their reputation.
FE’s reputation “isn’t as strong as it needs to be” and many people do not see it as an option for them, according to Mr Hussey.
He warned: “One of the issues is that people see us as the second choice”.
A new working group being established to tackle the problem will be “working on shaping the offer and the messaging around what colleges do in the 21st century and why they are so important locally and nationally”.
The damage done by PR difficulties at individual institutions, such as the death of a student, a disastrous Ofsted inspection or a principal being investigated on suspicion of fraud, affects the perception of further education in general, according to Alison Tobin, chair of the education and skills committee at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations.
She said: “The profile of FE has grown significantly over the years because of extensive government interest and investment in apprenticeships, which means maintaining reputation has never been so important”.
The biggest reputational issue threatening further education is financial viability, according to Dr Alison Birkinshaw, AoC president: “Financial health is really, really important in establishing a strong reputation”.
Data from the Education and Skills Funding Agency revealed that almost half (48 per cent) of colleges were running at a loss in 2016-17, up from 38 per cent the year before. To date, the ESFA has issued warning notices over financial health or control to more than one in seven FE colleges.
FE institutions are faced with risks to their reputation “often relating to the teaching and treatment of large numbers of young adults,” according to Matt Cartmell, deputy director general of the Public Relations and Communications Association.
He said: “If something does go wrong, there are three points that I would recommend: agree a position and react quickly; apologise if it is necessary; and explain the steps that you will take to ensure that this never ever happens again”.
This is an edited version of an article in the 9 February edition of Tes. Subscribers can read the full story here. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. Tes magazine is available at all good newsagents