Traditionally, British people are seen as rather modest and self-effacing – unwilling to talk about their achievements in an effort not to come across to others as too self-involved. Although the advent of social media platforms has allowed people to share their successes virtually (which we all do), the majority of us tend to shy away from blowing our own trumpet in real life.
I believe this is a particular trait of the FE sector. After years of being treated as the poor relation of education in terms of policy and funding, many of those working in FE have perhaps come to believe it. But the fact is that FE is full to brim with success stories, often being achieved against all odds thanks to dedicated and passionate teachers and students.
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As we say to our students in interview-training sessions, if you don’t believe in your own ability, then no one else will. There is of course a very fine line between sharing success in a useful, best practice type of way and standing on a pedestal and preaching at people. I am extremely opposed to the latter but appreciate that as a leader of an educational group, it is my responsibility to ensure our organisation is heard and the achievements of our staff and students duly recognised. And on a wider level – helping to ensure that the FE sector is given the credit it deserves in relation to improving social mobility and life chances.
Are colleges award-adverse?
It was with this in mind that my team and I decided to apply for a Queen’s Anniversary Prize award – which subsequently we are delighted to have won. This year, just four FE colleges (including ourselves) were named as winners alongside 18 HE institutions. In the time the awards have been running, there have been 218 winning universities and just 47 winning colleges. This is a stark contrast and hugely disproportional when you consider the number of UK colleges in comparison to universities – 240 vs 106 – more than double.
The Royal Anniversary Trust (which runs the QAP awards) highlighted that just 5 per cent of eligible FE institutions have EVER entered – despite the trust running regular promotional exercises, including a presence at the Association of Colleges' Annual Conference. The trust has even adopted FE champions from prize-winning colleges to advocate participation and advise on the drafting of applications – but uptake remains low.
It’s not that colleges are necessarily award-adverse. There are a number of sector-specific awards that continue to attract many nominations, including for example the Tes FE Awards which take place next month. The competition for these awards is extremely high, demonstrating the excellence within our sector. So, with many great colleges doing many great things, why are we seemingly less willing to push ourselves forward when it comes to competition with the wider education sector?
It may be, in part, a financially-driven decision. Writing effective award applications is a specialist time-consuming task and can’t always be covered by in-house skills. Universities are more likely to have the budget to cover this sort of extra support, whereas a college may well be forced to put limited resources into different priorities.
But it is not just about the money. I think that many FE colleges simply don’t see themselves as contenders for the QAP – an award that is billed as the "highest national honour that can be awarded to further and higher education institutions".
Believing in yourself
This is a huge shame, particularly when you see some of the pioneering work colleges are doing in partnership with industry, communities and other stakeholders – resulting in fantastic student outcomes. A commitment to social mobility is at the heart of so many college strategies and this goes way beyond simply awarding qualifications.
Colleges should be more confident about what they can and do deliver, particularly in such a tough economic climate. Let’s be ambitious and more willing to talk about our achievements in the wider education sector, highlighting our true value to employers, stakeholders and government. After all, as we tell our students – believing in yourself is the first secret to success.