Movers and shakers within FE are anxious to change the way colleges are perceived. Martin Whittaker reports
The outsideworld is more ignorant than you might think about what goes on in colleges. So, with the public already bombarded by brand-promotion and advertising, just how can the education system's hidden jewel get the credit it deserves?
Reputation is at the heart of the Learning and Skills Council's agenda for change reforms. Sir Andrew Foster's review of the role of colleges described FE as the "neglected middle child" between universities and schools. Two-fifths of people know little or nothing about colleges, the research found. Just one in 10 know what they do - yet most people who attended one would recommend the experience.
Employers perennially claim FE is failing them. In June, the Confederation of British Industry claimed the LSC needed to act immediately to challenge "poorly-performing and coasting" colleges.
Ray Dowd, the council's Agenda for Change champion, said changing the reputation of FE is far more complex than devising a marketing strategy - it requires a major cultural shift.
"This country does not place great value on vocational qualifications, if you compare it with examples in Denmark and Germany," he said. "In Germany, they have higher level skills and, therefore, the performance of their companies is better as a result. They give a lower priority to going to university and I think we are selling a lot of young people short by the direction they are given through the advice they get, following the A-level route into school sixth forms."
The council is setting up a consultative board to develop a marketing and communications strategy. "What employers think about further education is probably very different to what the Government or the media thinks about it," said Nicky Brunker, head of marketing and communications.
"It's important we get a range of perceptions. Then we have to be clear about how we measure those perceptions. A lot of colleges have excellent reputations locally, so how do we articulate that reputation on a national stage?"
While many colleges have marketing departments, how well they sell themselves and how much they build public relations into their strategies is not consistent. At its forthcoming annual conference, the Association of Colleges (AoC) will launch a leadership module for principals, chairs of governors and aspiring leaders on how to manage a college's reputation strategically.
The pilot initiative, developed with the Centre for Excellence in Leadership (CEL) and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, will initially be open to 10 people.
The course content will be "not just spin as some people might imagine, and more than just the mission statement," said Jean Kelly, programme leader of CEL.
Bill Rammell, the further and higher education minister, said there are still not enough people in positions of influence, whether in business, Government or media, with personal experience of FE. He took a swipe at negativity in the sector, condemning what he described as "the historical instinct of FE leaders to see the glass as half empty."
John Brennan, chief executive of the AoC, disputed this. Since its creation 10 years ago, the AoC had worked to raise the profile and reputation of FE with visible results, he said.
"We are keen to see a shift in the way FE and vocational education and training is perceived," he said. "That requires a cultural change, promoted by Government, supported by employers, individuals and society at large."