It’s time FE learnt to embrace the embarrassing

26 Jan 2019, 5:00

So the news isn’t good. Treat it as a chance to be open about your problems, to value others’ points of view and to listen and improve, says Ruth Sparkes

We’re all aware that it’s a tricky time for FE; the spending review is rolling ever closer, the sector has been financially starved for years, and it’s important that sector is able to present itself in the best possible light – but embarrassing news is sadly not in short supply.

I’m not pointing the finger at principals or chief executives or head of departments really. In my 15 or so years’ experience of working in PR and corporate affairs in education I have come across all sorts of instances where poor judgment and bad behaviour are swept under the carpet, rather than recognised as an opportunity to come clean and address problems.

Every sector has its fair share of issues. It doesn’t matter whether you’re defending the country or running a medical unit, being caught hiding the truth, pumping out excuses or blaming others invariably results in negative headlines.

It is great that the sector has recognised the power of a good reputation by celebrating and promoting external assurance of what it is doing, when it’s good or outstanding.

Positive endorsement, whether that’s through Ofsted or other external auditors is worthy of wider attention. But when problems arise, particularly if those in positions of responsibility are found to have come up short, it’s all too common for the response to be silence, distortion or publicly blaming others for bringing issues into the public domain.

Most of the time such issues don’t make the local, national or specialist media. But when the news is bad – when criticisms are voiced in public, negative outcomes are shared in the public interest or legitimate concerns are raised, as they have been in recent months – the reaction is often one of outrage.

Hiding the truth inevitably results in negative headlines

The tendency is to “shoot the messenger” of undesirable news, whether that’s the media, inspectors, or the commissioners’ office. Denial and defensiveness are the first reactions – “they’re taking things out of context”, “they’re making mountains out of molehills to increase site visitors” … “they’re spinning a narrative to fit what they want to think”, “stirring up a controversy where there’s nothing”, “it’s not even a story”.

Even if this were true, it is self-defeating to see negative expert and public opinion as a nuisance and something to be suppressed. Yes, it is embarrassing to have light shone on our weaknesses. Rather than feeling threatened, those in authority should recognise the benefit of being open about problems, value others’ points of view and value the opportunity to listen and improve.

Professional communications is not just about churning out positive news stories or obfuscating the bad. As a trusted adviser, it is our job to hold up a mirror, examine what is embarrassing and determine an effective resolution. Only then can we move forward in a mature and responsible way.

The current environment makes it ever more important to take care of the public money and young people’s futures that are entrusted to the FE sector. There is a real opportunity to step up, be professional and accountable, in delivering quality education and training. If the sector continues to deny where it has problems, undoubtedly, the result with be more critical headlines.

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One comment

  1. Amarjit Basi

    Ruth, you make a great point in this piece: given the appropriate culture, making mistakes can be the best impetus for learning. Given the irony of our central mission as educators, if only those overseeing the system would refer to the research of John Hattie, which assesrts that a climate of fear is not conducive to great learning.