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Just give us a break

As the Scottish Funding Council gets down to business, Ian Graham offers some trenchant messages

Further education is now the most regulated, reviewed and inspected sector of education in Scotland. The Scottish Executive and the funding council both twitch to every allegation of "misbehaviour" in incorporated colleges.

The approach which is consistently applied by both is a "floodlight" philosophy rather than the use of "laser beams". The slightest "problem" anywhere in the sector brings retribution on everyone, instead of one-off issues being addressed with the college in which they occur.

It is interesting, in this context, to contrast the Executive's (and, for that matter, the Scottish Parliament's) approach to what seem to have been legitimate concerns about "governance" in higher and further education.

Concerns about the actions of the former principal at Glasgow Caledonian University may have caused internal earthquakes in that establishment, but they left higher education blithely unaffected. By way of contrast, similar issues at Moray College set off seismic reactions in FE which were way off the Richter scale. They resulted in colleges being subjected to yet another level of scrutiny by the Standards Commissioner (while HE got off scot-free).

The commissioner's most recent annual report, of course, confirms that FE colleges do not even register on his radar - so much for their reputation as a "problem sector". The complexity of the sector's regulation is becoming second only to the Schleswig-Holstein question - no one really understands it, in particular the overlapping jurisdictions of Audit Scotland, the Public Standards Commissioner, the Information Commissioner, the Executive, the Scottish Funding Council. And if they ever did, they're either dead or mad.

However, the field is now wide open for those who wish to raise vexatious complaints. One individual at John Wheatley College was able to keep his case going through all the overlapping jurisdictions for the best part of several years. He had been dismissed for incompetence and his case at an employment tribunal had resulted in the college being awarded expenses as a consequence of his "unreasonable behaviour" - a rare occurrence indeed.

The college's defence of itself cost upwards of pound;30,000 in audit and legal fees (this, of course, ignored the opportunity costs imposed and the stress on its management). None of the allegations was found to have had any substance, and yet the individual was subsequently allowed to make fresh allegations which were treated as equally competent new complaints, and which kept the pot boiling.

The college experienced at first hand the conclusion of the film Fatal Attraction where a complainant, who was supposed to have been legitimately killed off by drowning, kept on getting out of the bath. FE is apparently a safe haven for "bunny boilers".

More recently, the college has been pestered by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education (a necessary but annoying gadfly - I used to be one of them, but only for a very short while).

John Wheatley College had recently to seek confirmation from Graham Donaldson, HM senior chief inspector, that it is the most inspected and reviewed piece of real estate in Scottish education (for the adjudicators of the Guinness Book of Records). That was denied - apparently it is visited on about an "average" frequency.

In about the past 12 months, this "average situation" has included: its own quality review (conducted more than a year earlier than might have been expected), a follow-up review of the Greater Easterhouse community learning plan, inclusion in the inspection of Lochend Community High School (with which it has close links) and an "aspect inspection" defining the inclusive college.

In all of these, the college emerged as a model of best practice. Its own review is at least as good as any other achieved elsewhere in the sector (an outstanding result given the nature of its immediate operational environment), the community learning plan review identified it as being an example of best practice, the college's links with Lochend were lauded in its own and the school's review and the inclusive colleges report singled out the college as "an exemplary model" of inclusiveness.

Indeed, following all of that, an objective observer might reasonably conclude that, if Carlsberg ran an FE college, it would probably be John Wheatley.

However, staff returned at the start of the new session to a circular to advise that HMIE would be coming back, yet again, to review provision made for school pupils in the college, an area which had been specifically looked at the previous year.

In the issue of The TES Scotland which reported on this (September 5), Mr Donaldson stated that the college had not received undue attention. If that is true, the promised "proportionality" of HMIE interest in college (and, for that matter, school) activities is a complete chimera.

John Wheatley College's record is "exemplary" (the inspectorate's own terminology), yet it still attracts attention which is now detrimental to the development of its provision for learners and the morale of its staff.

This is, of course, a metaphor for the entire FE service. Levels of scrutiny are now so high that they are having a serious impact on the delivery of the sector's critically important mission. And this in an environment where there is little real evidence of pervasive problems with the management or governance of colleges . . .

The late Edward Miller, director of education in the former Strathclyde Regional Council, memorably described the role of elected members in the management of education as being analogous to an unneutered dog walking down a street feeling the need to urinate on every lamppost just to make a mark.

On the street that further education now inhabits, it feels as though a pack of rabid wild dogs is on the loose with the same objective - and they can't, despite great efforts, even find a lamppost. Even as this article is drafted, there are more waiting to join that pack of regulators. Next up - the General Teaching Council for Scotland?

Just give us a break - and a sense of "proportionality". The review of further education surely has to offer some relief in these and related matters.

Ian Graham is principal of John Wheatley College in Glasgow.

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