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By Anne Nicholls
The announcement in early August that the Tes – the major print and online resource for the education sector – is ditching all its news coverage has come as a massive blow. The move signals a change of focus towards research, resources and advice for teachers. However, the most significant decision is to scrap the dedicated further education section and concentrate on schools. The strapline on their website “We power schools and enable great teaching worldwide” is proof enough.
It feels like the clock has been turned back 30 years to a time when it was a struggle to get any coverage at all for further education. When I joined City & Guilds as their first (part time) press officer in 1991 after a decade spent teaching in an FE college my attempts to get coverage for vocational education stories were often met with boredom and derision. The mantra was “Our readers won’t be interested because it’s not aspirational”. That hasn’t changed.
Then FE Focus, the further education section of what was then called the Times Educational Supplement (TES), was launched in 1995 under the editorship of Ian Nash in response to the failure of the media to cover further education. It was an immediate success with plenty of news, features and comment, supported by advertising revenue. This spurred The Guardian to create its own further education section, edited by Peter Kingston. There was a clear understanding within the TES of the need to invest in and create a sharp focus for the burgeoning further education sector, which was benefitting from a raised profile through a succession of inspirational Education Secretaries, not least David Blunkett. The result was a huge increase in coverage of further education.
By the time I joined the Learning and Skills Development Agency in 2001 (an organisation that provided research and resources for the sector) as communications manager there were opportunities for media coverage, which made my job a dream. However, when the TES newspaper was relaunched as a magazine in 2011 things began to change. Further education coverage was sidelined, until 2015 when it had a brief renaissance. By then Rupert Murdoch had sold Times Supplements to a series of private equity companies. The company Tes Global now makes around £22 million a year profit but carries debts of £30 million, which is why it keeps getting passed from one venture capitalist to another.
News coverage is being ditched because the management deem it to be too costly. Their view is that that this will not damage the company brand. Others disagree.
David Hughes, Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges, has written to Jo Johnson (non-executive director of Tes Global) saying: “For the last 25 years, Tes has been an influential and authoritative voice in technical and further education, helping leaders and practitioners to navigate change and championing college successes. It has supported a sector which is vital for our country, economy and levelling up and it has successfully held successive governments and institutions to account. The response to last week’s statement from all parts of the education sector shows that this will be a very real loss.”
At its peak there were 10 pages a week in the TES print edition, plus dozens of online stories attracting tens of thousands of page views, and over 34,000 followers for @tesfenews on Twitter. It also supported countless organisations and events in the sector such as the FE Awards. Will they survive? It would surely be hypocritical for the Tes to continue with them.
One of the saddest outcomes is that many highly talented journalists who carved out a specialist niche in further education are no longer with the Tes. One is Steven Exley who edited the further education section and is now working as communications director for a vocational education charity. The other is its latest editor Julia Belgutay. Both scooped awards at the Education Journalism Awards (run by the Education & Skills Sector Group). Julia’s investigation into colleges running food banks won her an Award in 2018. Her story about a training provider being investigated for fraud being kicked off the apprenticeship register is another example of brilliant investigative journalism that has had an impact at the highest level.
“Despite colleges educating and training more than two million people in England each year, they have for too long been left out of conversations that they should have been central to,” says Aaron Hussey, Head of Communications at the Association of Colleges. “With the Skills Bill currently going through Parliament and with the pandemic and climate crisis speeding up the need for change in the skills sector, further education has not been this important or this visible for a generation or more. At the time when we need more eyes on the sector, it is sad to see an outlet that has helped to put FE on the map being so diminished.”
So what does this mean for public relations professionals working in the education and skills sector, particularly those dealing with vocational and further education? Thankfully, there are two significant media outlets.
One is FE Week (founded in 2011), which provides print and online news, features and comment. It operates like a normal media outlet with contributors needing to pitch ideas, articles and press releases to the editor.
The other is FE News, a digital platform (founded in 2003). Contributors simply register and then upload content, which is then subject to light editorial approval. However, most submitted content gets published. With just a team of four people, FE Week publishes over 250 pieces of content per week (including video and podcasts as well as print), covering the whole education and skills sector. It survives without any financial backing from venture capitalists.
But the message is clear: commercial interests are driving the media agenda. And this doesn’t just apply to education. The opportunities for media coverage are shrinking which means as communications professionals we need to find new ways to get our messages across. What is most at risk is not the short, sharp news items which can be tweeted, but long-form content, analysis and investigative journalism.
It feels like the clock has been rewound 25 years and that further education is once again in danger of becoming ‘the Cinderella sector’. Boris Johnson has said that “we need to escalate the value of practical and vocational education that can transform people’s lives”. To do that we need a media that takes further education seriously.
OK Boris. Get that message across to your brother and the rest of the Tes board.
Anne Nicholls is a writer and PR/communications professional specialising in education. She is a committee member of the CIPR Education & Skills Sector Group and a chartered practitioner.
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