I’ve always thought of the Observer, like its sister the Guardian, as a newspaper that understands further education. While most of the press seem mildly baffled by colleges, devoting all their education coverage to schools and universities, the Guardian and Observer provide regular reports on adult education, apprenticeships, vocational training, literacy learning and overall policy for the sector. In short, both papers get the point of FE.
But now they seem to have decided that their readers prefer a more elitist approach. The Guardian’s coverage of FE has dropped noticeably over the last couple of years, while the cash-strapped Observer now confines its coverage to the occasional headline story about dodgy apprenticeship schemes. Last Sunday, the Observer carried a good, old-fashioned college-bashing story of the kind that I expect from the Express or Daily Mail.
Kevin McKenna, the Observer’s Scottish columnist, last week turned his attention to the increasingly surreal topic of the Scottish Government’s policy towards colleges. This is a fitting topic for serious journalistic debate: the government has slashed college budgets to pay for university tuition fees, leading to the demolition of part-time provision and the collapse of participation, and the relevant minister appears to be either incompetent or dishonest or extremely forgetful. Quite a story.
McKenna kicked off with the story of Stow College and the infamous “spy pen”, about which I blogged last week. Like most non-specialist journalists, he was quick to show that his understanding of the sector is limited. Kirk Ramsay, who resigned as chair of the Stow College board amidst accusations of government bullying, was as ‘a mildly bumptious and self-important academic’. As anyone who knows the sector will be aware,college boards are typically chaired by one of their lay members; a trained engineer, Ramsay has had a number of jobs but became prominent as the chief executive of a well-known Glasgow visitor centre.
McKenna then proposed – guess what – cuts in the college budget. Or rather, he wanted more colleges closed, and less spent on ‘HNDs in tattoos and tarot cards or landscape herbology’. Colleges serve politicians as ‘a methadone substitute for the dole queue’, while civil servants are merely ‘shoehorning our young people into college courses to meet the fatuous 50% target’. And just in case you still thought anyone involved had good intentions, McKenna puts them right: those who run colleges are motivated by ‘pension pots, early retirement packages and sick payments’.
It’d be easy to dismiss McKenna as a right wing nut job, Melanie Phillips on Buckfast. He employs all the usual lazy stereotypes, and seems someone who never knowingly lets facts obstruct hyperbole. But McKenna is one of the few Scottish commentators who attacks poverty and inequality as though he means in. In one of Europe’s most sharply unequal nations, he regularly savages a political class that views injustice as an occasion for a quote from Burns before turning its back on massive inequalities of health, income, and education.
So if McKenna shows neither knowledge nor understanding of the sector, we should be on the alert. Fewer and fewer media organisations are able to employ specialist reporters, and their education correspondents believe – probably rightly – that their readers are more interested in schools and universities than colleges. I have no idea how many journalists attended colleges as students, rather than universities, but I guess that they are rarer than non-Etonians in the Tory leadership. So unless colleges think much more creatively about how the sector is reported and presented in the media, we can expect more silly stories about frivolous college courses in the future.
The reality, as economists like David Blanchflower and David Bell have argued repeatedly, is that getting young people on college courses is hugely preferable to unemployment. Rather than tarot reading, colleges help train the plumbers, electricians, child care workers, car mechanics, accountants, drivers and bricklayers that help bumptious citizens like McKenna and me to lead our comfortable lives, and provide the workforce for tomorrow’s enterprises. They cater for students with every kind of disability imaginable, and provide a second chance for youngsters whose experience in our schools was not world class. Until two years ago, they also provided part-time education for tens of thousands of adults.
Colleges provide a service, but their role is poorly understood, and they have not always been well-represented by their professional bodies. That’s probably why the Scottish Government thought they presented a nice, non-contentious opportunity for budget cuts. In a media culture that is ferociously competitive, increasingly unstable, and ever more shaped by digital media, how should those concerned with lifelong learning be telling their learners’ stories?
I know where I would start: by inviting McKenna to visit one of the institutions he has lampooned, somewhere like Forth Valley College, where he can meet some of the people who are learning the things he so despises. I think he’ll find himself both chastened and enthused.