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13 January 2003

Charles Clarke for fairy godmother?

The further education colleges have four million students. Yet you'll read more about Eton than abou

By Peter Kingston

Prince Charming didn’t carry cash, so on the stroke of midnight, as he dropped Cinderella back at the kitchen door, he had to ask his detective to oblige. “Call you sometime, babe,” murmured HRH, slipping a couple of ducats into the girl’s hand. “But mind!” the prince added sternly. “No more of this moping about. We expect our subjects to look cheerful. So chin up, Cinders.”

No pantomime audience would tolerate such a liberty with the familiar fairy tale. But the heads of the nation’s further education colleges swallowed a similar ending from a government minister at their big annual bash, the Association of Colleges conference dinner in November.

The minister was Ivan Lewis, who bears the dodgy-sounding title of “minister for adult skills”. If you crave jolly atmospheres, you will have steered clear of the association’s dinner in recent years, but on this occasion the members were on a high. The day before, they had been awarded their biggest funding increase since their colleges were cast free from local government and incorporated a decade ago.

Lewis was understandably keen to dwell on this munificence. But he was also determined to make one sharp point to the principals, which boiled down to this: now we’ve given you all this money, shut up whingeing about being the Cinderella of the education sector!

There was clapping and even the ghost of a cheer from his audience, who knew exactly what he was on about. Just as no riverside picnic in Babylon could get going before the Israelites had laid down their harps and had a good weep, so no gathering of further education clans has officially started until someone recites the Cinderella lament.

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Though it is a tired metaphor, the tag “Cinderella sector” is justified. Despite the welcome £8bn cash injection for the whole “learning and skills” operation, a sum described by the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, as roughly Iceland’s GNP, further education continues to be ignored by the national media in favour of schools and universities. When the Daily Telegraph ran its guide to education over several weeks a couple of years back, it absurdly dismissed further education – a huge and complex service catering for all ages from 14 to the grave, offering courses on everything from bricklaying to philosophy, at all stages from the illiterate to degree level – in three sentences as a sector where most teaching was shoddy and most students languished there reluctantly for want of something better to do.

This cannot be laughed off as twittish, even less as a misguided genuine editorial conviction. Further education has about four million students. A third of A-levels are taught there and 40 per cent of university students come from the colleges. If the Telegraph, and for that matter the Daily Mail and Times and their Sunday sisters, really believed that a huge wodge of their readers’ tax was being squandered on a system that was letting down most of its customers, they would rightly be exposing it every week.

And if they truly believed FE was so crummy, every third week in August – instead of plastering their pages with St Monica’s gels, all academically selected dead certs to get decent A-levels – they would be compelled by news values to print pictures of equally photogenic 18-year-old female college students who had defeated appalling odds to get their straight As.

No. Snobbery is the chief reason further education is snubbed. National newsdesks are overwhelmingly peopled by middle-class graduates who share one view of FE or, as the older of them might call them, “tech” colleges: they are not places they would want their children to go to.

The other main reason is ignorance. Unlike most employers, Fleet Street is uninterested in qualifications. Though you will probably need certificates to work in virtually all other departments of a national newspaper – from cooking in the canteen to checking for libel in the lawyers’ office – there are no formal requirements for working in editorial. Qualifications are a blind spot for journalists. Because they don’t need them, they don’t appreciate their crucial importance for people in most other employment.

Does this matter if the punters themselves are happy? A survey commissioned by the Learning and Skills Council recently showed remarkably high levels of satisfaction among further education students. But this should not allow the colleges themselves or the government, which has scripted such a central role for FE in its principal economic policy, to overlook national media disdain.

This disdain has to be addressed if further education is really to play its role, and the British snobbery about applied, technical, practical, vocational education – call it what you will – which has blighted its industrial potential and divided its people is to be eradicated. Money helps, but it is not the complete answer. It wasn’t cash that put Cinderella en route to the happy- ever-after. It was the elevation of status afforded by a royal marriage which rescued her from the ugly sisters.

The further education sector must do its bit. It must find out which papers and which radio and television programmes its students and their parents consume. Then it must lobby media executives and proprietors far above the newsdesk treeline with hard data about the huge numbers of their readers, listeners and viewers who either attend colleges or whose children attend them. Does Conrad Black, for instance, honestly assume that not a single Telegraph subscriber is to be found in any of the thousands of college adult education classes up and down the country?

The government must do much more to promote the colleges and to sing up their importance. It is no good leaving this to education ministers talking at the colleges’ own events. The Prime Minister and Chancellor, backed up by their spin doctors, have to do more in their big set-piece speeches to make clear their faith in further education.

And who will be the fairy godmother? Why, the role is surely tailor-made for Charles Clarke.

Peter Kingston is further education editor of the Guardian

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