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Identity is the key to our future prosperity

Tom Kelly looks forward to a future of high-trust, low-cost initiatives from government

Legacy reports of diplomats are much feared by governments. When Sir Who-he What's-it leaves his last post, the "tell it all" articles and books are not far behind.

There is much less of a tradition of telling successors how it should have been in the "home" public services. So here is a reflection on a decade of Scottish policy and micro-administration during my time at the Association of Scotland's Colleges.

No one can doubt that the colleges are now a sector in their own right alongside schools and universities. The old labels of technical, further and vocational education may still have their uses in education-speak. But if you say "Scotland's Colleges" today, everyone knows what you mean.

I learned just how important identity as a sector can be from a visit to Eire. The Conference of Colleges in Waterford was the first of its kind and included a very different array of sector leaders - not least the vocational education committees (VECs) which oversee colleges and secondary schools for the Department of Education and Science in Dublin.

The lead representative body in Eire is the Irish Vocational Education Association (IVEA) - representing the 33 VECs - rather than an association of the colleges.

It was quite a jolt to find that FE colleges are seen as part of "second level" education (that is, schools), and that the principal qualification is the "post-leaving certificate".

Appointments of staff and establishment of courses have to be approved outside the college - even "infill" of part-time students along with full-timers is controlled. Incorporated governance and academic autonomy on Scottish lines look like mirages.

There are many elements in the expansion and higher status of colleges here - growth in funding for tuition and student support, unitised and devolved course design, cumulative certification, engagement with employers in updating curriculum and occupational requirements and, now, major investment in new or modernised college campuses. But these all depended on first setting colleges free to develop the best provision and service for their communities.

Colleges here take responsibility for developing the new. They don't wait to ask what, when and how to do the next thing students and employers require. Just look at how colleges absorbed the blow of the complete breakdown of SQA certification in 2000-01 and made sure that students caught up in the delays did not lose out.

Ten years ago, I predicted that, by 2000, the watchwords of government would be "stability" and "light touch". How wrong can you be? Colleges are now assailed by wave on wave of new intermediary bodies and micro-prescription. Low-trust, high-cost solutions abound even as ministers talk up "efficient government". Is this just the inevitable consequence of getting a Scottish Parliament intent on using its legislative powers?

It would be great if the Review of Scotland's Colleges - due early this year - reversed this retrograde trend. There will be ample evidence of colleges' ability to move much further towards high-trust, low-cost solutions. They set a standard of reformed public service which others will do well to follow.

Lifelong learning thrives on choice. By opening up access and better opportunities for study and training in colleges, Scotland can unleash the energy and potential of students both for work and their own quality of life.

A standstill in recurrent funding for colleges is here again, at least for 2007-08. But beyond still lies the key challenge of giving more chance and support to those who need lifelong learning most. By all means let's focus on young people not in employment, education or training (Neet) - and above all those leaving care. But Scotland is also off the pace in offering better prospects to the low-paid in work and the hardest-to-reach adults.

Colleges have earned their place as Scotland's comprehensives of lifelong learning. They are not just a bolt-on to schools, or the take-off point for university. More in colleges is definitely better for Scotland.

Tom Kelly is the outgoing chief executive of the Association of Scotland's Colleges

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