State of confusion – the world of FE as seen by the media


Everyone knows what a further education (FE) college is. Or do they? When 1,000 members of the public were asked which colleges on a given list were FE, they were very confident. And yet three-quarters (75%) said Trinity College Cambridge, putting it top of the list. Eton College was second with 57%. Only one genuine FE college was on the list and that came last with just 12% identifying it.

The ICM survey, commissioned by the Association of Colleges (AoC), produced a constant flow of bizarre results, with very disturbing implications. While many people may not have the foggiest what an FE college is, it doesn’t stop the media and many of the general public slagging them off as low-standard, poor quality and a waste of time.

In fact, as my parallel research for the Parliamentary Skills Group – published in the new report Open to ideas – suggests, the less journalists know of FE, the more likely they are to denigrate colleges – or disregard them.

Confusion in the minds of the public stems from many things, says the AoC. There is the lax use of the word college as 750 schools call themselves ‘college’ – a word that is also synonymous with ‘university’. Half the people in the ICM survey insisted FE colleges were not even inspected by Ofsted; there was an implicit assumption of inferiority about them. Yet once the picture was clarified, the same people immediately saw colleges in a far more favourable light.

When it comes to the media, the AoC has had some success explaining FE during the disputes over the ending of Educational Maintenance Allowances and protests over the collapse of capital fund for building two years ago. As Ben Verinder, AoC Media Director, said: ‘there are periods in the year when we now get good press coverage’. This is, however, the exception not the rule and the pact with media collapses as soon as he tries to explain to a beleaguered news editor the complexities of the college funding regime – ‘they just don’t get it.’

But then, who really does? This brings us to my research for the Open to ideas essay, which drew on extensive interviews with 30 national journalists and Whitehall policy watchers – a core of them in the Policy Consortium. Beyond the Guardian, TES and Independent there is little serious coverage of FE and skills. The most typical ‘reporting’ is characterised by the following:

As Britain’s teenagers either celebrate or commiserate over their A-level results this weekend, a stark warning from the British Chamber of Commerce: do not go to university unless you plan to study something useful. Policy director Dr Adam Marshall said: ‘There may be a course in underwater basket weaving but that does not mean anybody will actually want to employ you at the end of it.’ Universities should be banned from running Mickey Mouse courses that are best left to further education colleges. Not only are they a waste of time but they are the very reason students facing a shortage of places are now having to pay exorbitant tuition fees.

The ill-informed piece by Camilla Tominey, Royal Editor of the Sunday Express, was disowned by Dr Marshall but the damage was done. Much coverage in a similar vein focuses first on criticism of government, second on the colleges and then on some invidious comparisons with the German dual system of training.

As I explain in the essay, few journalists have a coherent narrative of FE. Why does that matter? Because in a media-driven world this damages performance, as the CfBT report Instinct and reason  illustrates. It shows how problems in public services get reported rapidly while solutions never make the headlines. Eager-to-please (and win votes) ministers respond to an ill-informed electorate with half-cocked policies. ‘Lack of reporting leads to a lack of information to drive policies forward and this impairs the functioning of markets,’ say the authors of the CfBT report Mick Fletcher and Adrian Perry.

In the Open to ideas research, commonly cited reasons for under-reporting FE and skills were, first, that journalists went to school and university but not college and, second, that the readers’ children don’t attend college – it is not seen by news editors (the gatekeepers) as an aspirational place, despite the evidence (back to the misconceptions unearthed by the AoC). FE is also seen to fall outside the narrative. Susan Young, former TES News Editor and Express feature writer said:

One strong influence is that the way education is reported is heavily prescribed (again the gatekeeper influence). There are good schools and bad schools, traditional vs trendy, old discipline vs no discipline, and the constant deference to going private. FE is simply outside all of that and therefore not a story, as seen by news editors.

Another factor cited by journalists was the impossible complexity that arises from repeated government reform and meddling. Every government for more than two decades has pledged to free colleges from red tape and bureaucracy. Then something, maybe even something small, goes wrong and a succession of inquiries (Nolan, Leitch, Foster, etc) identify ‘problems‘ and inexorably regulation and targeted resources for skills initiatives follow with cuts from areas of so-called new freedoms in order to foot the bill.

We are now seeing this in the NHS where Health Secretary Andrew Lansley is imposing 57 new performance indicators before the new health funding regime is even in place. In FE, the net result of so much chopping and changing, official inquiries and policy reforms is a media turn-off, says journalist and author Francis Beckett:

Colleges are forced to market themselves on ‘we teach skills companies need’ rather than ‘we are socially desirable, we are second chance education’. The growing utilitarianism of their offer, which is forced on them, renders them less attractive and interesting to report on.

There is also a resultant ill-defined muddle with cumulative layers of bureaucracy, jargon and funding technicalities never quite displacing the previous sets. We see this with the attempts of New Labour to remove ‘FE‘ from the post-16 lexicon in favour of ‘learning and skills‘. It never took over but the jargon is firmly embedded while ‘FE‘ returns to the fold. Consultant and researcher Andrew Morris summed it up: ‘FE is just not a concept that works for people – it’s a muddle, an administrative category resulting from the peculiarly British way of handling public administration.’

Despite all this bureaucratic kerfuffle, there are good stories to report – Adult Learners Week and the great Homeric struggles against ignorance by 90-year-old latter-day computer buffs, the Skills Olympics which saw superlative performances by the Skills UK team in London this year. Unfortunately, while the mind-numbing complexity may suit politicians out to manipulate the system to their ends without fear of interference, journalists under increasing pressure to deliver at ever-greater speed despair and then give up. The sentiments of every journalist interviewed were summed up by Stephen Hoare, freelance and regular writer with the Times:

To set colleges free, the government needs to radically simplify the structure, the bureaucracy and the language. FE is confusing. There have been so many reforms and reports that keeping up to speed with them all is beyond a normal education hack’s remit or patience.

I’ll leave the last word with Ben Verinder who neatly draws the strands of Jo(e) Public, journalist and politician together:

Good education journalism shines a light in the labyrinth. It helps people understand and navigate through the system. But all too often those lights are obscured, overpowered or snuffed out – respectively by: editors, sub editors, news editors, general reporters and even picture editors who are as confused as any other parent and who too often obfuscate or block in-depth reporting as a result; by the politicisation of education reporting to the detriment of balance and, perhaps most disturbingly, by the rounds of redundancies during which media lose their specialist reporters. Without an informed media to guide us we will all end up bumping into walls.

Ian Nash, December 2011


twittertwitter  The Policy Consortium on Twitter