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'FE colleges aren't Cinderella - we're Mrs Brown's boys'

The TV comedy's success hasn't changed the way it is perceived among the 'elite' – and FE colleges suffer in the same way, writes Ian Pryce

colleges reputation Mrs Brown's Boys Cinderella

The TV comedy's success hasn't changed the way it is perceived among the 'elite' – and FE colleges suffer in the same way, writes Ian Pryce

Do you like Mrs Brown’s Boys? Most of my friends find it unwatchable, as does most of polite society, the elite. A male central lead dressed as a woman, two-dimensional characters, stereotypes and slapstick humour they thought died out in the late 70s.

Unfortunately for them, the programme is incredibly popular, the most-watched show in nearly every corner of the UK, able to command its own Christmas Special. It gives its fans exactly what they want – belly-laughs that leave them feeling good. It is also a programme that can be subversive in its content and takes big risks. Not many shows have the courage to record whole episodes in front of live audiences on a fixed set.

None of this changes the views of the elite.  It simply confirms a deficiency in the people who enjoy it.  Elites often dislike democracy and popularity. They know what’s best for you. The public can’t be trusted to know good TV, good art, good schools, good colleges. But this is the sort of arrogance that also engenders Trump and Brexit if the public gets an opportunity to stick up two fingers in response.

Success and growth

FE colleges suffer in the same way. Since incorporation, we have grown in size and popularity.  The Association of Colleges tells us there are now 712,000 16-18s in colleges, compared with 424,000 in school sixth forms; we have captured nearly 10 per cent of the higher education market despite the restriction of having to get permission from universities to do much of that; we do huge volumes of the heavy-duty apprenticeships, including half of those in engineering and manufacturing. 

We’ve achieved that by being what Dame Ruth Silver calls the “adaptive layer” of education. We are difficult to pin down, quick to respond and to evolve. How many other sectors could deliver hundreds of thousands of GCSEs in maths and English almost overnight? At last year’s AoC conference, Ben Page, of Ipsos MORI, showed that colleges have very high and consistent customer satisfaction scores across all socioeconomic bands – results as good as those achieved by the NHS. Sadly that growth and popularity cuts little ice where it matters. We had to get used to a chief inspector whose criticism of our sector often wasn’t even supported by his own report.

Much recent academic research on leadership and learning has proven the importance of domain-specific knowledge. Hospital trusts run by doctors generally perform better than those run by people with little experience of the health sector. It should, therefore, not be a surprise that an education department with few people with any experience of running colleges or of vocational and technical education, or a cabinet with no individuals who studied such subjects in a further education setting, often makes the wrong calls, admittedly accidentally. Employers, too, lack the specific knowledge we bring.

While there is a place for a strong employer voice, there is an irony in the CBI calling for a cull of the myriad vocational qualifications (almost none used by colleges, by the way) without any hint of remorse that many failed qualifications, such as many of the narrow NVQs, were designed or heavily influenced by employers. The qualifications that have stood the test of time – degrees, A levels, GCSEs, applied generals, HNDs, etc – were created and developed by expert educators. Domain-specific knowledge matters.  

Loved by the public

Those 1970s comedies often featured hapless plumbers, electricians and builders; or made fun of cooking and hairdressing disasters. Such sketches are rare these days because colleges produce so many competent people, the sketches wouldn’t be credible. 

Over the past 25 years, we have quietly gone about our work producing the people that matter most to our communities – those that build our houses, fix our boilers, our computers and our cars, care for our children and our parents, ensure the planes that take us on holiday are safe and look after us when we get to our destination, cook our special meals, entertain us live and on TV, enrich our lives with their art, cut our hair and make us even more beautiful! 

The public love us, we just need the political aristocracy to question the poverty of their thinking, engage with our domain-specific expertise and be as open-minded as the public, treating them and us with more respect. Of course, we can still improve, and still have much to do, but there is wisdom in the FE crowd. 

Ian Pryce is chief executive of Bedford College

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