From education to employment

But Should FE be Surprised at the Outburst from a Prime Time TV Reality Host?

Ever since the former England football manager fondly known as “El Tel” for his media ““ friendly persona and almost constant bronzed hue ran afoul of the then ““ Tottenham Hotspur Chairman Sir Alan Sugar, the founder of Amstrad Electronics has had a reputation for being abrasive.

Indeed, this has been the very cornerstone of the success of his hit BBC2 television show, The Apprentice. The rough handling that the hopefuls receive from him in front of the camera as they are slowly whittled down during the series is the kind of voyeuristic pleasure that has fed the current obsession with so ““ called “reality television”, a concept which ignores the age ““ old scientific argument of whether it is actually possible to observe without interfering with the natural course of events.

Sweets for my Sweet”¦?

Yesterday (March 21st) a storm erupted following ill advised comments that Sir Alan made on his show that disparaged the work of everyone associated with Further Education colleges, and by extension anyone involved with Further Education provision or learning of any sort. To be precise, he said that an FE College was “where dummkopfs come to learn where to make mistakes.”

It should be noted that the Association of Colleges (A0C) has been remarkably restrained in its response to this unexpected attack. In his letter on the subject, Dr. John Brennan, Chief Executive of the AoC, indicated his displeasure, saying: “I can only assume those comments were made in ignorance of the reality of modern further education – and in particular of the real experiences of the four million students studying there.”

The abrasive style of the programme is intended, it is assumed, to simulate the combative “dog eat dog” world of modern finance and entrepreneurship. The statement that Sir Alan made is an anachronism and is an indication of the work that FE has still to do to rid itself of the stereotype of mediocrity. It might even be necessary for the BBC to look at just how applicable the management techniques are in the show if this is a benchmark for the modernity of thinking, as much as Sir Alan is a very successful business man and as much as the show does seem to be compelling viewing.

No Such Thing as Bad Publicity

There is a need for a word of caution, however. It is only a few short weeks since the return of The Apprentice was being hailed as another indication that vocational education was much more generally on the public agenda, and that FE was losing the tag of “the Cinderella sector” (or more recently “the forgotten middle child”, as Sir Andrew Foster put it).

An individual, whose name escapes me for the moment, once famously opined that “there is no such thing as bad publicity”. It is certainly true that these comments have enabled FE to gain a much broader media presence than would otherwise be the case. It is also certainly true that the sheer volume of praise for Sir Alan Sugar and the programme itself would seem to indicate that FE is too desperate to reverse its poor image, and is too eager to enter into the popularity debate.

Sir Alan’s comments did not reflect the state of FE today; it is the most dynamic and most innovative area of FE, and the millions of people making use of it each year are benefiting from dedicated learning provision and facilities. Perhaps, however, FE as a whole should be a little more cautious of leaping onto a bandwagon in the laudable effort to raise public awareness.

Jethro Marsh

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