Behind the braggadocio

28th March 2014 at 00:00

Why is it that every college in the UK - and, come to that, every other educational institution in the Western world, from nurseries through to universities - has become such a terrible braggart? You only have to drive by one and take in the banners hanging from the railings to see what I mean. It's like those placards for ailing shows you find outside theatres in the West End of London. But instead of " `Brilliant' - Daily Mail", they say things like " `Second best faith sixth form in south-east Scunthorpe' - Good Colleges Guide" or " `Good with improving features' - Ofsted".

And it doesn't end at the door of the college either. It's mandatory these days for every last institution to adorn its website with so much self-congratulatory flimflam, full of high-quality this and world-class that. Forget a mission statement. Today it is all about "values", showing students what a wonderfully caring and sharing institution their local tech has become and how inclusive, how respectful, how dotingly nurturing its staff are. You can't help thinking that if colleges had noses instead of shiny new annexes, you could watch them growing before your very eyes.

Now, one establishment (where I was a student many years ago) has taken this to a whole new level and is championing itself as the "number one college in England" - although in this case there is some spurious degree of legitimacy, given that the institution is currently sitting at the top of the success rate league table.

Of course, this desperate need to continually big ourselves up isn't unique to the educational world but something imported wholesale from business. And the bigger the business, it seems, the bigger the balderdash. Thus Starbucks, with the straightest of corporate faces, assures us on its website that its purpose is not to flog us cups of the brown stuff at pound;2 a throw and rising, but - and I quote - "to inspire and nurture the human spirit". Similarly, the great hyperbole factory that is Google gives us more than 1,500 words on "Ten things we know to be true", under such headings as "Fast is better than slow" and "Great just isn't good enough".

It's not so much lying (and this applies to the educational world as much as the commercial one) as being hopelessly optimistic with the truth. No doubt some colleges do reach levels of excellence and inspire and motivate their students. That's on their good days. On bad days they are just as likely to confuse and bore the pants off them.

And with all this hype around, some of it is quite likely to come back and bite us on the bum. It's great when you can tell the world that you are number one. Two or even three doesn't sound too bad either, if last year you were four or five. But when, as is inevitably going to happen, number one slips down to two or three, it all starts to go a bit pear-shaped.

So here's a novel idea: why don't we all just go back to telling our potential customers the plain, unvarnished truth? "We are a college. We teach. We aim for our students to learn." And the rest. is silence.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a further education college in London

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