As the Old Year ends, let’s kill off ‘GFE’ as a term to describe colleges

It’s Hogmanay, Old Year’s Night, so let me offer a final thought for the Old Year as we say farewell to 2012.  And a thought about death, too!  Let’s make 2013 the year we kill off that dreadful, damaging, anachronism “General FE College”.

Every time I hear ‘GFE’ I think of Alastair Campbell’s offhand insult about “bog standard comprehensives”.  BSCs: bog standard colleges.  What are we thinking of?!  It may have started off as a statistical shorthand to distinguish GFEs from other types of college (agricultural colleges, arts colleges, specialist adult ed colleges and the rest), but this is madness.  It’s demeaning, inaccurate, and terrible branding.

The higher education sector has its specialist institutions too, from Cranfield (aerospace) to Ravensbourne (digital media and design), but no one talks about Cambridge or Reading as “general universities”.

There was great variety across England before 1992 when colleges were incorporated, because local authorities treated them – and invested in them – in many different ways.  In taking on responsibility for creating a national FE policy for the first time after incorporation, it made sense for central Government to level standards up across England, and therefore made sense to identify, and build, some commonality across the sector.  But those days are long gone.

National funding rates, and the work of the national inspectorate, drove that commonality and secured the floor for standards, but all the liveliest colleges now distinguish themselves from the crowd.  They want to excel, they want to be the best they can be in their chosen specialisms, and give their students all the benefits that come with excellence.

In my role as a governor at Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College I proudly talk up our excellent work for students with learning difficulties and disabilities (which Ofsted graded ‘outstanding’ last time they were in), and our superb, innovative, international offer (which earned us the Queen’s Award for Export), and press to see similar expertise elsewhere in the college.  Not to polish our collective egos, but because it works for students.  They deserve the best, not ‘bog standard’.

‘GFE’ says to me ‘ordinary’ and ‘colourless’.  It doesn’t tell me that as part of their studies sports apprentices at North Herts College get to run a commercially successful sports club (praised by Doug Richard as a ‘learning company’ in his review of apprenticeships), or that the Fleetwood campus of Blackpool and the Fylde College has a worldwide reputation for its Merchant Navy officer training.

So, may I suggest a New Year Resolution for everyone in the sector: let’s stop talking about GFEs.  It’s an outdated term which has had its day, and diminishes the value which colleges offer.  Let’s talk instead about the many examples of real excellence across the sector.

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About Iain Mackinnon

I am Managing Director of The Mackinnon Partnership, a niche consultancy working primarily with public sector clents in the UK, and focusing on skills and enterprise, usually in the wider context of wider economic development.
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