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Bridge to the future is under great pressure

Most of the talk in recent months has been about the McCormac report, teachers' pensions and battles over the EIS letting down supply and chartered teachers. If it wasn't that, it was university fees and whether Scotland could afford to keep higher education free. Remarkably little has been said about FE.

At a time when youth unemployment in the UK is five times higher than in Germany, and competition for university places is fierce, school leavers are worried (Kids Talk, p46). They are potentially the "lost generation" that Stirling University professor David Bell fears could face years of unemployment.

In addition to their key vocational role, FE colleges can be a lifeline. For students who don't make it into university, they offer a fall-back. For those who can't find jobs, they teach necessary skills. For workers who are made redundant, they retrain them. Whether partnering schools to provide baccalaureate classes, or enabling students to do preparatory work for a university degree, colleges provide a bridge to a future.

The Scottish Government clearly recognises the vital role colleges play. In its election manifesto it pledged 25,000 modern apprentices to be created this year, and in its green paper on post-16 education this month, it promised a place in education or training for every 16 to 19-year- old.

But how these policies can be delivered is another matter, and those at the top of the sector are alarmed. Last week, John Spencer and Graham Johnstone, speaking for college principals, wrote an open letter to the Education Secretary, expressing concern over the Government's spending review. It presented "a bleak future for Scotland's college sector," they said, and "the SNP's manifesto commitment to retain student numbers at colleges over the lifetime of this Parliament could not be delivered in this proposed budget".

This week's News Focus (pages 12-15) reveals 859 jobs were lost in colleges this year through voluntary and compulsory redundancies. Half of those were teaching staff, while the rest were support staff vital to a sector where 28 per cent of students drop out and 12 per cent fail. With figures like these and further cuts of pound;74m over the next three years, it's not surprising that the principals warned the Education Secretary their ability to deliver the SNP agenda would be "seriously compromised".

With FE student numbers set to rise, further college mergers on the horizon and staff numbers and courses being cut, it is hard to imagine how overall quality won't be impaired.

In a recent TESS interview Russell Griggs, the man leading the review of college governance, said he hoped to achieve change without students noticing. A more pragmatic view, perhaps, was that of former civil servant and chief executive of Scotland's Colleges John Henderson. He put it mildly when he said the risk was: "the student experience will suffer".

Gillian Macdonald, Editor.

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