"It is patently obvious that we are not connecting with the vast majority of the population" - damning words from Bryan Sanderson, National Chairman of the Learning and Skills Council at a recent lecture, where he urged those involved in post-16 learning to "change the way they think about what they do."
Sanderson's speech, 'Unleashing the tiger - how education and training will transform the UK', came just as the Learning and Skills Council came on stream a few months ago, but the details reveal some interesting thinking taking place behind the scenes.
Sanderson said he was disappointed that the press hadn't covered the launch of the LSC with more enthusiasm, "because learning is something that affects all".
Key to post-16 providers changing their approach, he said, was to put a marketing focus on learning: "We are selling a customer product (personal transformation) where, as an industry, we don’t really know what the customers think, what the customers really want and where as producers of this particular brand of intellectual capital we can say little about the quality or the clarity of our product in terms that might make the consumer want to buy." The key points he made were:
More clarity needed. There was more clarity in schools and HE, Sanderson said, due to the existence of the national curriculum, inspection regimes and league tables, which meant that people are happier with what they're buying. Schools and colleges this is helped by league tables. The FE sector has more students than either secondary schools or universities, but less clarity - there are currently 25,000 on offer.
Developing brands. Because of the sheer number of qualifications on offer, there's no clear branding in place to help people understand, he said. FE could look to business and the HE sector to see how best to develop brands, Sanderson said, citing Oxford and Cambridge Universities and Sunderland and Leicester City football clubs as examples of successful branding of learning. Establishing credibility for the many qualifications on offer was key to building good brands, he added. The LSC could play a key part in this: "I hope and believe that with time, the learning and skills council will be seen as a credible overarching brand helping the consumer to feel secure in the post-sixteen sector..."
Losing the 'learner'. Sanderson suggested dropping the term learning if it doesn't appeal to the customer - "we need to find ways of describing what we do in terms that mean something to them". More research was also needed, he said, into Find out why people don't want to learn - surveys and not feel defensive about the results.
Using simple language. Much of the language used in education was foreign to those outside it, Sanderson said. Both learners and businesses were being put off from getting more involved by the 'jargon' used, he said: "unless we can say with clarity what we are offering in post-sixteen education in terms that our customers will understand, relate to and want, then the chances of achieving our mission are greatly diminished."
National culture needs to change. The truth that education helps you succeed was being masked by popular culture in this country, Sanderson said. Reliance on fate - 'it could be you' - meant that people weren't facing up to being responsible for their own future, he added.
Sanderson said he was optimistic about the future, but said that "we need to move quickly to engage business, to convince them of the relevance and usefulness of learning in terms of their business. And we need to be able to deliver a consistent product the length and breadth of the country." Engaging learners and business was, he said, "a serious matter. There is a lot of public money at stake. There is an even greater mass of human capital at stake".