A steep learning curve in rebranding FE

As the new Millennium approaches, it's time to reassess the further education sector. By Malcolm Burgess
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The Independent Online
The facts: Further education often has a negative public image. "It does everything from patio-building and cake-icing courses to degrees, and you're never quite sure what it's meant to be about" and "Its reception areas always look like the one in Crossroads" are just some of a recent Focus group's criticisms.

The way forward: The visionary emphasis of further education for the Millennium must be based on a new democratic dynamism. More accountable governing bodies, better funding - and fewer principals wearing late- Eighties suits.

The royal touch: As yet, no member of the Royal Family has attended a further education college. There are many opportunities for the children of Anne, Charles and, later, Andrew to set a precedent. Prince William could do a GNVQ course in Heritage Management at his local college.

The opinion makers: There is no question that further education carries little weight among the so-called "chattering classes". This can only be remedied by a series of measures designed to make the sector pass the "Would Michael Ignatieff find it interesting?" performance indicator.

These include:

Further Education Challenge Jeremy Paxman to front a revised format using multiple-choice answers and a skills check list.

The further education novel: Other sectors regularly appear in fiction. A number of even more interesting sequels and re-writes should be encouraged, starting with Malcolm Bradbury's The Tourism and Leisure Man and David Lodge's The Portakabin Hut is Falling Down.

Further education soirees: Labour dinner parties helped attract the glitterati to the centre Left. A similar series of further education divertissements would involve key movers and shakers, debating such vital questions as "Is lifelong learning about Hamlet or hot-desking skills the model for the Millennium?"

Lifelong learning: People still need to know exactly what it is, where they can get it and why it is so important. Flexible, portfolio, transferable and other new skills will be vital for the Millennium. And lifelong learning - or lifelong earning - can only succeed through the use of further education.

Lifelong learning needs to be seen as a commodity that everyone is entitled to. Local colleges should be developed as "one-stop" shops, on a par with Tesco's and Superdrug, where people will "buy" a basic computer course in the way that they purchase a breakfast cereal.

Advertising campaign: Further education is rarely seen as exciting, glamorous, sexy or, sometimes, even relevant. A series of hard-hitting television and cinema commercials would draw attention to a sector which really means business. Two possible strategies are:

1 Short scenes in which well-known soap-opera characters explain how they are exploring further education options to improve their life chances. The EastEnders market trader Bianca could explore the marketing courses that would help develop her business; Peggy Mitchell might even consider an access course.

2 David Blunkett - an ex-further education lecturer - and at least several other senior Government members could let us know what made them work for so long in the sector. It is too often assumed that New Labour especially is full of Oxbridge lawyers.

The conclusion: Rebranding further education is a real possibility. But internal vision programmes will need to heed the lesson of all rebranded products. Changes should be as much about content as style if further education is finally to be taken seriously.