One voice for Holyrood?

Geraldine Abrahams looks at the options if ministers go for a shake-up of the post-16 support agencies

THERE HAS been little surprise at the proposed merging of two national support agencies in education as the result of a review by the Scottish Office. The Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum and the Scottish Council for Educational Technology do not themselves appear to be averse to the idea.

But why stop there? Is there an argument for merging the Scottish Further Education Unit and the Scottish Community Education Council, or perhaps even for fusing all four organisations to provide a super, all-encompassing support agency?

The new parliament will have responsibility for education and training post-16, so rationalisation would make sense. Any argument for adhering to the status quo would have to be based on the distinctiveness of what the agencies do, but there is little to suggest that such separate agendas now operate.

On the other hand, there is evidence that providers other than the national agencies are addressing post-16 needs. There has been speculation about a quality council and an advisory council for lifelong learning, all of which suggests that existing agencies will have to re-examine their own roles.

In the context of the Government's lifelong learning ideal, Higher Still, the strengthening of links between further and higher education and the establishment of the University for Industry, sectoral divisions are likely to be viewed as unhealthy, uneconomical and impractical. The potential of one or perhaps two bodies to support the whole range of adult and continuing education provision, FE and training, community education, careers, even the needs of upper schools, is likely to come under close scrutiny.

An early signal may emerge from the review of community education, chaired by Douglas Osler, head of the Inspectorate, which is due to be published this month.

Astrid Ritchie, a former member of the Scottish Community Education Council, says: "There are strong arguments for mergers now, particularly in view of the drive towards lifelong learning, and also in view of the fact that the Government in Scotland has done little for lifelong learning.

"We waited a long time for the lifelong learning paper and nothing has been done with the report on adult education outreach. The work in Scotland has not been drawn together in the way that is has in England."

Mrs Ritchie concludes: "Linking the SFEU and SCEC could be extremely constructive as a way of really structuring adult education in Scotland and giving some power to its elbow. It could result in a far less fragmented approach to further and adult education generally. They are already very intertwined with a lot of adult basic education going on in the colleges, a lot of overlap between the area that SCEC and the voluntary organisations cover, and indeed FE and HE, so the more you can get a one-door stopping point the better."

But Michael Leech, principal of Stevenson College in Edinburgh and chair of the SFEU's board, favours a wait and see approach. "SFEU is just at the beginning of a performance management and finance review so I think it is much too early in the process for a view from SFEU about coming together. While I can see the initial attraction in doing this from a cost-effective perspective, the first requisite must surely be that such a structure is effective in actually achieving its purpose."

Mr Leech considers that given the links between the support agencies there are various possible merger permutations. As a college principal, he concedes that it might be easier to approach a single organisation but warns that removing overlap may expose gaps in the service.

"The world of educational organisations is always a bit untidy and sometimes a bit of overlap is better than a lot of underlap," Mr Leech says. "Besides, even beyond those organisations a consumer still has other providers of courses or advice in other sectors. So even if we had one organisation embracing all these functions there are still other bodies in the private or voluntary sectors or the universities that might be offering this know-how."

Looking ahead to Holyrood, he suggests "some kind of mechanism for constructive commentary and advice to the Government on the post-16 curriculum".

But it may be folly to rush into premature rationalisation. "The old adage of form follows function is very important, and sometimes it is all too easy to be lured into a tidy and rational form and find after a while that the means cease to serve the ends," Mr Leech says.

"After seven years or so, a single agency might be unscrambled and the constituent agencies all reborn again. There are other ways for achieving co-ordination and integration of policy. I would urge caution."

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