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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International experience for apprentices?

I’m reading George Painter’s biography of that sadly-neglected great Briton, William Caxton, the father of English printing.  Caxton’s first career was as a mercer, a trader in fabrics, and he was sent to Bruges in 1444 while still an apprentice.

What a great foundation for Caxton’s later career, which saw him not only leading ‘the English community’ in Bruges as a successful merchant, but also the chance to discover the novel innovation of printing, and try his hand with the first book to be printed in English, before he returned to London.

Painter says that “the custom [I presume he means, ‘amongst the mercers’] was for the promising and ambitious apprentice to go overseas in his final years”.  I wonder how many of our apprentices today get such an opportunity – and how many more would benefit if they got the chance.

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Miliband on English language and integration

Ed Miliband’s speech on immigration the other day caught my eye.  In part that’s because I know that his father, Ralph, is one of the more famous alumni of the college where I’m a governor, learning English at Acton Technical College as the first step on a career which led him to prominence as an academic.   I hope that one day we can welcome Ed, or David, or their mother, to what is now the Acton campus of Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College, to inspire our current ESOL students.  I want them to believe that as recent immigrants they can ‘make it’ themselves, as Ralph Miliband did, and do not have to live their hopes only through their children.

Clearly Ed Miliband was trying to shift Labour’s centre of gravity on immigration in response to widespread concerns, and despite the oddly staccato style of the written version, it was a thoughtful speech, worth attention.

I was struck by this phrase: “almost one million children in Britain now don’t speak English as their first language at home, double what it was in 1997”.  How far is that really a problem?  I want everyone in this country to be able to use English effectively in their daily lives, but I also hope that everyone who has another culture as their heritage continues to cherish it.

I’ll illustrate what I mean by the example of my own family – because neither my father, nor my wife’s father, spoke English as his first language.

My father-in-law was Polish, drafted into the German army against his will when it invaded in 1939, then losing out a second time as the Soviet army began its invasion.  As he started again in Britain he was very clear that he intended to integrate, anglicizing one of his Christian names for use at work, and never making any attempt to join Polish clubs or teach his children Polish.  I think they’ve missed out.

My own father, by contrast, was a Scot – and a native Gaelic speaker, who learnt English only when he went to school.  Conversation in the home was always in Gaelic when he was a boy, though of course everyone spoke English fluently and to the uninitiated my father was not so much “integrated”, as a “normal” fellow Brit.  And I, too, like my wife’s family, have missed out because my father did not teach me his native language, or anything of Gaelic culture.

A civilised society values both, doesn’t it?  Everyone needs to be able to converse in English, and read and write English well, so that they can get and keep a decent job, talk to the doctor and to their children’s teachers, and play a normal part in society.  And those who argue fiercely that immigrants should be made to learn English should stop getting in the way by curtailing ESOL classes for the vast majority who are hungry to do so.

But those who are lucky enough to be part of some other culture too, should be encouraged to celebrate it, protect it, and nurture it.  How is my Britishness threatened when my local Sainsbury’s sets up a stall selling sweets for Diwali?  The staff wear their saris on Diwali, and I think they look great.  I don’t know if the many Poles who queue alongside me think so, too, but we all know that the staff speak fluent English.  That’s the key.  What happens in someone’s own home is up to them.

PS  Miliband made a passing reference in his speech to signs in pubs and landlords’ windows a few decades ago which said “no blacks and no Irish”.  It wasn’t just private discrimination: it was the State too.  Before open display of vacancies (and before the Race Relations Act) it used to be normal for many vacancies in Government Employment Offices to be marked “NCNI”: ie “no coloureds, no Irish”.  Who says there’s no such thing as progress?

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The case for Chartered status? Not proven.

I remember a colleague many years ago pondering the latest bright idea from Head Office.  “It’s always so hard to know with these new initiatives”, he said: “is this going to dominate our lives for the next five years, or will we all have forgotten about it by Christmas?”.

That particular idea – a Neanderthal ancestor to our modern Local Enterprise Partnerships – did die, but what are we to make of the Government’s ideas for Chartered status for colleges and other providers?

The risk is that it will go the same way as TQS, the Training Quality Standard, a time-consuming distraction which gave colleges another badge to add to their collection, but which surely made no difference at all to the choices made by a single employer.  No wonder BIS killed it off.

As a consultant I’ve been taught to start with a single question: “what problem are they trying to solve?”.  And the Government’s Consultation Document on Chartered Status offers four answers:

  • enhance the reputation and status of the sector;
  • demonstrate where and how colleges and training providers are being responsive to the employers and the communities in their area;
  • measure and demonstrate increased quality;
  • help prospective learners and the UK Border Agency recognise legitimate FE colleges and training providers.

Let’s take each in turn.  Does Imperial College get its worldwide recognition and status from holding a Royal Charter, or from the terrific work done by its academics?  This is how Imperial describes itself on its website:  “Consistently rated amongst the world’s best universities, Imperial College London is a science-based institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research.”

Quite.  There’s no string of badges indicating that some other body has given it the thumbs up for some aspect of its work – though the website has links to the latest Research Assessment Exercise and to several league tables, because both have real currency in the academic world.  [The RAE is now REF (Research Excellence Framework), of course, but Imperial’s link is to its 2008 RAE data].

I draw two conclusions.  The first is that Imperial manages just fine by standing on its own strengths, without displaying a badge of Government approval.  It even manages just fine without the need to call itself a university.  So it’s a sign of weakness, isn’t it, that colleges are thought to need a new badge indicating that we’re amongst the chosen?

My second conclusion is that unless anyone else recognises the badge you wear, and understands what lies behind it (neither RAE scores nor HE league tables are transparent), it is worthless.  Will the Government invest in ensuring that employers, potential applicants and those who advise them, know about, and understand, the value of the new Chartered Status?  I’d be surprised.

Second, demonstrating that providers are responsive to employers and their wider communities – a bureaucratic process substituting for normal market mechanisms?  Tesco needs no badge to show that it’s responsive: it has sales figures, and queues at the tills.  Colleges and training providers win the approval of individuals and employers, and their business – or they don’t.  How does another badge help?  This is TQS all over again.

Third, ‘measure and demonstrate increased quality’.  23 new criteria are suggested which go well beyond what Ofsted – the Government’s guardians of quality – are already asked to inspect.  They are all good ambitions of course, so why am I not persuaded by the list?

The first reason is that it flies in the face of the Government’s ambition to give us more freedoms and flexibilities.  They’re clearly irritated that providers haven’t grabbed their opportunity with more enthusiasm, but is the answer really to start clamping down already, and prescribing exactly how we are to be free and flexible?

My second concern is that such lists are always too short-sighted, too dominated by current fads and obsessions.  15 years ago Helena Kennedy produced her well-received report on widening participation, and the phrase ‘widening participation’ was on everyone’s lips.  Had chartered status been invented then, the criteria would certainly have included some test of ‘widening participation’, but there’s no sign of it now.  How many of today’s 23 will stand the test of time?

The final aim – ‘help prospective learners and the UK Border Agency recognise legitimate FE colleges and training providers’ – looks very odd.  Doesn’t Highly Trusted Status do that job already?  The fact that the UKBA is not as predictable as it should be in awarding that prize is a reason to sort out the UKBA, not to invent a new category.

There is also the further complication, not touched on in the paper, that these are proposals for England only.  Many people beyond our shores are baffled by the distinctions between England, Great Britain and the UK – and a good few in England have no better idea.  For all its faults, HTS is at least UK wide.

The starting-point for all this was an attempt to define criteria by which colleges might win ‘earned autonomy’, akin to that held by universities.  That worthwhile ambition – grasped clearly by Lord Lingfield in his excellent report – looks to have got lost along the way.

Which is why I asked above whether higher status and prestige really be achieved by some bureaucratic process.  I’m sympathetic to the Government’s irritation that the sector isn’t moving fast enough, but they should have the courage of their convictions and stand back.  It will work out.

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