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New chief is hard-nosed stickler for quality

Ian Nash reports on the man appointed to the top inspection post at the Further Education Funding Council. Glaswegians would normally associate the term "the hard man" with the likes of Jimmy Boyle, the reformed criminal and sociologist. Unless, that is, they happen to be in further or higher education.

In which case the name Jim Donaldson more readily springs to mind. As director of quality and learning for the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, he took a tough line on the universities and HE institutions in his second annual report on quality assessment.

The institutions, delighted to have been handed considerable control over self-assessment, proudly boasted their achievements and put in claims for the council to label them "excellent".

In the event, just under six out of ten were given worse gradings than their self-assessment. Almost four out of 10 had their grades confirmed. Only 3 per cent won better results than they bid for. The word "criminal" was a euphemism for what the principals and chancellors had in mind.

All this will delight the principals of English FE colleges who this week learned that Mr Donaldson will take over from Terry Melia when he retires as chief inspector for the Further Education Funding Council at the end of the year.

Mr Donaldson responded to criticisms with his usual understatement: "A major disparity obviously exists between the institution's view of its quality and the view of external peers."

Dr Melia was more blunt when he postponed - for much the same reasons - self inspection for most FE colleges until at least the new millennium. "They are turning a blind eye to their weaknesses," he said.

But Mr Donaldson insists he is not totally hard. "There are obviously some difficulties in self-assessment. But colleges very quickly come up the learning curve and are very soon able to undertake their own assessment."

Moreover, he promises considerable support, building on the personal contacts of the English system, which has inspectors dedicating their time to particular colleges.

David Melville, FEFC chief executive, is more than delighted with the appointment of the Hard Man. "Jim Donaldson will bring to the council extensive experience of inspection and quality assessment and an in-depth knowledge of post-school education and training."

In fact, Mr Donaldson could justifiably be labelled an educational recidivist. There is hardly an area of education he has not indulged in. He is currently chief inspector of schools at the Scottish Office with special responsibility for post-16 education.

His previous posts with the Scottish inspectorate include chief inspector for vocational education and training and chief inspector for higher education.

Between 1992 and the present, he was seconded to the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council as director of teaching and learning, where he set up the arrangements for assessing the quality of higher education programmes.

Before his career in the Scottish inspectorate, Mr Donaldson was a lecturer in economics at Telford College from 1979, Queen Mary College, Edinburgh from 1974 and Napier University from 1968.

He joins the FEFC in January and has made it clear that he will move with the same exacting standards which have marked out his career north of the border. "The council is now proposing changes to its inspection framework which will involve a move to some form of accreditation. I am looking forward to leading the inspectorate during this period of change."

Colleagues describe him as "hard-nosed but also responsible." In FE in Scotland, he was largely responsible for the report "Measuring Up" on the first attempts by the inspectorate to impose general standards and set a marker for the sector in Scotland.

His views also chime with the key recommendations of the English committee of inquiry into students with learning difficulties and disabilities, chaired by John Tomlinson, professor of education at Warwick University Institute of Education.

Reporting on a similar inquiry into Scottish special needs, he expressed concern over "considerable disparities in provision by different institutions. And while recognising the constraints imposed by the lack of resources, he urged colleges to "think in terms of students rather than just in terms of the range of provision". It is a line which could have been copied from the Tomlinson report.

He divided Scotland into four regions. Limited resources were shared out and colleges bid for special needs support.

Expensive, mobile equipment could thus be pooled and shifted around at a moment's notice according to individual needs. It sums up a general philosophy which he believes fits the FE environment perfectly.

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