YOU might be forgiven for thinking that a group of 34 colleges which manage to turn out more than 10,000 students a year, each equipped with a set of decent A-levels and other qualifications, would be more than satisfied. Not so.
During their annual gathering in Exeter at the weekend, members of the Conference of Independent Further Education expressed serious worries about their colleges' "poor public image" and concern that they were widely regarded as no more than "crammers". Even their composite name gave rise to heated discussion.
In a private meeting at the Royal Clarence Hotel, college principals objected to the name of their association because they felt the words "conference" and "further education" were misleading. But as the organisation has been established for 26 years they wanted to keep its acronym and call themselves Council for Independent (Sixth) Form Education.
"We are not and never have been FE colleges," declared one principal. "We are independent tutorial colleges - sixth-form colleges, if you prefer. And we are certainly not crammers. That's an invention of the media."
He has a point. Although their intake is mostly 16 to 19-year-olds, some colleges admit students aged 13 and above who want to take GCSEs. A few entrants are school refusers or those who have been expelled from state or independent schools. Many others enrol for two-year A-level courses. Then there are those who wish to change subjects or obtain higher grades by re-sitting two or three. There are also those who register for what has become known as "Easter revision" - a one-term, pre-exam swotting exercise. It is these accelerated courses that have given rise to the "crammer" label the colleges find so offensive.
"We'd certainly like to see that wretched word disappear," said Paul Redhead, outgoing chairman of CIFE and principal of the Cambridge Centre for Sixth Form Studies. "Crammer makes it sound as though we force students to learn parrot-style. That used to be done by duffers who sat for army and civil service exams. Exams have changed. It's now a question of skills and teaching people to write well and think on their feet."
"We want to improve our image both here and abroad," declared the conference's new chairman, David Lowe, principal of Cambridge Tutors College, which is actually in Croydon, south London. (Many colleges recruit students from overseas.) "We form an alternative to the traditional sixth form and provide a bridge between school and university," he added.
The closed meeting took decisive steps to improve the organisation's corporate image. It strengthened its executive committee by increasing its number from six to nine and agreed to consider the future of its acronym. But the most important change was implemented months ago.
In January, Elizabeth Cottrell was appointed as secretary. If anyone is capable of giving this exclusive club a fresh lick of paint, it is she. One-time director of research at the Centre for Policy Studies, the Tory party's think-tank and joint brainchild of Margaret Thatcher and the late Lord (Sir Keith) Joseph, Dr Cottrell became intellectually linked to a long line of cabinet ministers. Most recently, she was adviser to Gillian Shephard, the Conservative education secretary.
Dr Cottrell immediately reorganised the conference's database and within her first five months managed to refer 2,613 serious enquiries to member colleges. Most callers were anxious to secure places for Easter revision and the largest proportion wanted a college in the London area, while the second biggest group wanted a place in Greater London and the South-east.
"I don't give career advice," Dr Cottrell told delegates firmly. "Nor do I make judgments about the financial circumstances of the people to whom I speak." Many parents - and it is mainly parents who call - ask for a guarantee about the quality of the courses. Who can blame them? If they are about to shell out between pound;5,000 and pound;8,000 for a course and around pound;12,000 if it is residential, they are entitled to ask for an assurance on standards and quality. "I tell them it's not easy to become a member of the conference and that our members have been colleges for a long time," Elizabeth Cottrell said.
She also explained that the conference accepts only colleges recognised by the British Accreditation Council for Independent Further and Higher Education or the Independent Schools' Council. It is a worthy stamp and keeps cowboy colleges at bay. It certainly helps to heighten public awareness. And you can't ask better than that.