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And the answer is, there is no answer

A review of Scotland's colleges has taken two years to complete. The conclusion? We need a review. Jim Donaldson takes a sceptical look

AT LONG last, the review of Scotland's colleges affectionately known as RoSCO has been published. Those readers with good memories will recall that the review was commissioned in response to one in England conducted by Sir Andrew Foster.

The Foster review, Realising the Potential, had some particularly hard messages for colleges in England. It gave a strong push to the development of vocational specialisms within colleges, which would be connected through hub and spoke arrangements across the country and would embrace skills academies and centres of vocational excellence.

FE was placed in the context of a wider educational strategy covering all sectors, while the Learning and Skills Council, the funding body in England, was urged to continue with its plans to create a national network of colleges and other providers, focused on the needs of employers.

The review of Scotland's colleges has taken two years to complete. At the start, it was considered to be the most comprehensive review of the sector since incorporation and it presented stakeholders, rightly at the heart of the review, with a golden opportunity to refocus purpose and strategy.

It was hoped that RoSCO would identify the various ways in which the FE sector would become the major provider of the skills that this and the next generation would require. Yet the principal recommendations fall short of expectations. Instead of anticipated reform giving a stronger voice to employers, there is recognition of the challenge that "colleges will have to work increasingly closer together with other organisations, such as employers and other education and training bodies, and with each other".

No recommendation is made as to what further action should be taken by government and the funding council to improve engagement between colleges and employers. Nor is any consideration given to the ways that a demand-led system might be achieved.

In Scotland, many good local examples exist of the relationship between employers and colleges, but this doesn't prevent employers repeatedly stating that FE colleges are not meeting their needs. We are now at a point where FE in the rest of the UK is rapidly moving towards a demand-led system for funding education and training one in which the customer, whether learner or employer, is put in charge of their learning or training solution but not in Scotland.

The RoSCO report highlights the progress made in areas such as college estate and facilities in recent years, and suggests that there are sound economic and social reasons why colleges should attract additional funding.

Some lightweight recommendations in the review concern accountability and governance. An earlier report describing and evaluating governance concluded that "in general, the standard of accountability and governance in Scotland's colleges is good".

Yet many of the recommendations on accountability and governance are surprisingly basic, such as urging boards to take full account of the range of criteria expected when making appointments and to have a formal training programme for members.

By contrast, the Funding Council in England published training materials in 2000 specifically targeted at college board members, which were warmly received.

The review argues that college staff must be developed appropriately. A number of recommendations are made, including all full-time staff in colleges having access to six days of continuing professional development a year, and a proportionate amount of time for part-time staff.

So what are we to make of the review overall? It is summed up for me in the recommendation that the Scottish Executive should "initiate early work to: clarify the positioning and key roles of colleges and other stakeholders with an interest in the tertiary sector; develop regulatory and funding regimes to support this; and strengthen adaptive leadership capacity".

Spending two years reviewing the sector, only to end up asking the executive to review it again, is, to put it kindly, a missed opportunity.

Jim Donaldson was chief inspector at the Further Education Funding Council for England and is now a consultant

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