Higher Still gets the message across on core skills

Communications departments are at the sharp end of change, reports Neil Munro

FURTHER education communications departments are at a critical stage as Higher Still approaches, according to lecturers. But there are different views about whether the prognosis is good or bad.

The Higher Still English and communications course has not aroused the same passions in colleges as it has in schools (page four). As Jean Allan, head of the languages section at Clydebank College, points out, FE staff are already familiar with the new concepts and approaches such as criterion-referenced assessment.

Eugene Clark, head of communications at West Lothian College, says the content of the Higher Still course does not pose problems and colleges have had long experience of internal assessment.

The key factor for communications departments is the advent of core skills. Chief among them is clearly communication which must be at the heart of every course. Attainment of all five skills is compulsory for Scottish Group Awards, the new combinations of courses intended to provide coherent study programmes.

Nancy Houston, who is responsible for the English and communications network at the Scottish Further Education Unit, believes core skills will give more prominence to communication in all college courses. In turn that should enhance student achievement across the board, she says.

But there are concerns for the future of communications departments, which essentially provide a service for other subject areas from vehicle maintenance to business administration. If colleges decide to embed communication as a core skill separate departments will be harder to justify and could come under threat.

But Linda McKay, depute principal of Glenrothes College, says there is little embedded communication in the new courses. "I believe staff are now more relieved that their early fears of a wholesale dismantling of communications departments are not being borne out," she says.

The report on implementation studies in colleges, published in June by the Higher Still Development Unit, looked at preparations under way in eight colleges, and found that discrete core skills units meant less time for specialist teaching in the vocational subjects. The case study colleges preferred "core skills to be embedded or achieved within vocational units" and the unit said it was "reassuring that most Scottish Group Awards will have more embedded core skills than has been the case with General Scottish Vocational Qualifications".

Mrs Allan believes, however, that this could be a "dilution".

While the relationship between core skills and communications is a worry, colleges share other concerns with schools. The need for more staff development time to allow familiarisation with the new course is "a thorny issue", Mrs Allan says. But she believes there are signs more time is being made available.

Time will be an issue when it comes to actual teaching as well, Mrs Houston believes. "It is important that there is adequate time for teaching so that lecturers don't just become assessors, markers and verifiers."

While the internal assessment workload is the chief preoccupation for schools, it is external assessment that exercises colleges, according to Mr Clark. It is not just a matter of the implications for teaching, he says, but for course management which has got out of the habit of dealing with the inflexibilities of external assessment in non-advanced courses.

Mrs Houston and Mrs Allan also stress the importance of striking the right note for the huge variety of students and attendance patterns in FE. "The content of courses has to be scrutinised to ensure it is suitable for mature students," Mrs Houston says.

Mrs Allan anticipates a challenge in teaching communications at different levels so that young people and adults, full-timers and part-timers are working at the right level. "This is a timetabling and, very importantly, a guidance issue," she says.

But colleges like Clydebank which have an open door policy are used to coping with multi-level teaching since students arrive with a range of qualifications from Standard grade awards at Credit level to nothing.

The FE sector has absorbed everything that has been thrown at it in recent years, and there are no signs that it cannot take Higher Still in its stride.

As Mrs Houston points out: "Colleges are used to reconstructing whole courses because of the need to respond to changes in technology and in the workplace - and to respond with short lead-in times so as not to lose business."

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