Let's try two steps forward and one step back

ONE STEP forward, two steps back. The belated attempt to halt Higher Still implementation is not unexpected. Higher Still issues have been around since the Munn and Dunning days.

I had just left school when the challenges of a broad, balanced curriculum and parity of esteem were first issued. So the proposed boycott by the unions shows that little progress has been made. It has been a Long March.

Time-scales of 25 years are anathema to FE. After all, the "can do" sector delivered the action plan in under 25 months.

It is unfortunate that the Educational Institute of Scotland's ballot will not distinguish the position of lecturers from the main body; FE staff believe that the best way of attacking the various problems is by incremental and planned implementation.

The biggest Higher Still problem facing FE is the deep-seated complacency about how the integration of core skills will be handled.

The recent publication of the core skills manual is a sound starting point for the establishment of a comprehensive national core skills framework.

It is a solid addition to the repertoire of Higher Still support materials. It will be particularly helpful for our curriculum leaders. It is based upon a compelling consensus, untarnished by the ballots, on the principles of breadth, balance and relevance which serve to define Scottish education.

Although it is designed to be augmented at appropriate times, it continues to feel like work in progress. This is not necessarily a problem. Colleges are advised to promote linkage between core skills planning and other policies within the institution. This advice is fundamentally excellent but not easy.

The advice on curriculum planning is equally sound. The manual will assist coherence and rigour in terms of standards of student performance. Curriculum leaders now have a springboard for informed discussion with their course teams.

Likewise, in the light of existing practice, colleges will assess the varying merits of the different means of certificating core skills (fully embedded, partially embedded, assessed as part of a specialist unit and discretely or separately assessed).

Three outstanding issues deserve more attention.

First, fundability, namely: l The costs of providing discrete programmes, particularly poignant for the college adult populations and, in particular, the socially excluded.

* The inclusion of core skills in the funding review.

* The use of individually designated student funding to support core skills programmes.

* The appropriateness of college staff structures in successful delivery.

* The costs of staff development.

Second, the impact on partnerships. The manual is quite silent on this issue despite the fact that many of the development and delivery challenges might be solved by closer collaboration between colleges.

Schools and education authorities will become more protective of their statutory provision - at least in the early phases. No doubt the secondary sector will experience its own complacency. Universities and employers will take some time to value core skills certification, despite recent CBI research.

New partnerships must emerge if the massive potential inherent in implementing core skills delivery is to be recognised.

Third, the scope of the challenge. It is quite unthinkable to conceive a national curriculum framework without core skills at its centre. The manual successfully and realistically sets out the challenge of implementing the framework in its entirety. But the FE sector can confidently rise to the challenge only if IT makes student progress easy to record and the manual is given a level chance of impacting on staff in colleges. This will take time.

As the manual itself suggests, we face a mammoth awareness-raising challenge. This challenge starts within our own organisations and with our own staff. For FE, phased implementation starting with the core skills challenge is the way ahead. More a case of two steps forward and one step back.

Graeme Hyslop is depute principal of Langside College Glasgow and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland. He writes in a personal capacity.

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