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Polymath on a steep learning curve

Neil Munro meets Tom Kelly, the new chief executive of the Association of Scottish Colleges. There are not many people who would describe a posting to be chief executive of the Association of Scottish Colleges as "a very attractive prospect." Tom Kelly, after a lifetime in the civil service or perhaps because of a lifetime in the civil service, is one of the few.

The ASC in turn regards a man who has been on the inside track of Government policy for over 20 years as an attractive prospect in himself. The poacher-turned-gamekeeper is a catch. The "downsizing" of the civil service reinforced his desire for a change, he says, as well as the fact that he did not want to become "too much of a backroom boy".

Kelly has been on a steep learning curve since stepping into the top FE job in April. He is more than conscious this weekend, as the ASC meets for its annual conference, of following John Sellars who he acknowledges was "steeped in further education" But that should not faze someone who has been the typical civil service polymath, moving with apparent ease from vehicle taxation upwards to higher education, looking after prisoners and seals on the way.

The poacher-turned-gamekeeper is the ultimate irony in Kelly's case. A degree in history from Cambridge led to Whitehall, a rarefied if classic route which has now given way to an almost passionate cri de coeur for the value of FE in helping those who have not made it as he has. The gamekeeper is now a convert.

The Leicestershire-born 47-year-old began his apprenticeship in the old Ministry of Transport in 1970, three months before it was absorbed into the Department of the Environment. He looked after vehicle taxation, regional planning and historic buildings.

The move to Scotland came in 1976 where his experience was equally esoteric - local authority finance, a period of secondment to the European Commission and another acquaintance with historic buildings. The last he describes as the one civil service job in which he would have happily remained, observing that "the most interesting thing about historic buildings is not the buildings but the people in them".

But, as Kelly also observed, "you get used to leaving a job in the civil service after three or four years just when you are gaining expertise in it." Perhaps that reflects his own hope for a more settled period in the world of FE.

His first call to the then Scottish Education Department came in 1982 when the Munn and Dunning reforms and the 16-18 action plan were all the rage. The latter was very much a Departmental initiative which earned his section the soubriquet of the "module factory." He recalls the action plan, which changed the whole face of FE in Scotland, as "a uniquely exciting opportunity : I can't remember anything so fast-moving, positive and significant. There were grumbles about the speed, scale and complexity but nobody disputed the worth of making the change" The experience left Kelly with a lasting impression of "the instinct for development in further education." FE, he suggests, has a different agenda and stimulus from schools adding that "if employers press for changes colleges get on with it and don't require long debates. The pace of the action plan compared with Standard grade was like being given a sports car rather than a 1.1 litre engine" In 1984 he got first-hand experience of rapid change himself after returning from holiday to be told he was moving to the prison service. He was made deputy director in charge of parole policy, inmate casework and strategic planning. All was quiet on the inmate front until riots erupted at Peterhead, Barlinnie, Perth and Glenochil. "About the only positive thing was the re-opening of the jail at Greenock," he says.

Even more explosively, Kelly had the controversial special unit at Barlinnie under his wing. He was soon pitched into the politics of penal policy when Hugh Collins, a prisoner of great artistic talent embraced by the liberal establishment, absconded on a Good Friday after a day at the Glasgow School of Art. "Ministers were not amused," Kelly recalls, "since they were about to go off for the weekend with their wellies and fishing tackle".

But his main memory of that period is that "Scottish Office ministers were on the whole very relaxed about what is essentially a tightrope between custody and care; it's a matter of judgment and experience to manage that. At the end of the day, the prison service is a people industry. There's a good book in it if I had the time".

Afterwards came what Kelly calls his "rest cure" in agriculture and fisheries, not a term his successors would use in the current embattled atmosphere of beef and fish. All he had to worry about was shepherding Virginia Bottomley, then a junior environment minister, through a seals crisis after she had been savaged by kids on a Blue Peter programme. The next seamless transfer came in 1992 when he took over the higher education division in the Scottish Office just when relationships had to be established with the new Scottish Higher Education Funding Council.

The paper-chase generated by the assessment of teaching quality was the main criticism he faced during that period, although he adds that "my experience as a civil servant is that people criticise the process when they don't like the outcome." He also points out that when a university like Dundee was criticised for its teaching of computing, it did something about it.

Now that he has arrived in FE, Kelly believes his expertise in funding will be his main contribution in lobbying for the sector. He has already reached the conclusion that the formula for funding colleges is "too aggressive in terms of demanding efficiencies particularly when they have an inheritance of under-funding in buildings, equipment, estate, and technology." Colleges can hardly be blamed after only three years of self-government, he says.

Kelly's experience in HE, ironically, has also furnished him with distinctive arguments to fire on behalf of FE. "It is easier to make the case for colleges," he says. "HE students on the whole are confident and they have the social contacts and the intellectual capacity to take on challenges.

"It is FE that has to provide the opportunities for everyone else, for the 60 per cent who are not within the participation target for HE. Additional investment is required to improve our deficit in skills and standards of workmanship, not to produce more graduates to fill jobs for which they are over-qualified".

Kelly's time in the civil service has marked him out as the model of a very civil servant, although he appears to have acquired the openness of the public arena remarkably quickly.

Nobody has a bad word to say about him. He in turn has a balanced view of others : he wants to work with the education authorities, the local enterprise companies, the universities, his counterparts in England and Wales - and even the unions.

Kelly says he understands the powerlessness felt by many FE lecturers - and, again, he is able to use his HE experience. "Academic communities still run universities," he observes.

"Courts may take decisions against senates, but they won't do it very often. And in schools there are powerful relationships between parents and teachers. There is no similar support for lecturers in FE colleges.

"The answer, however, is not militancy but for the ASC to encourage better management so colleges don't fall down obvious rabbit holes. But, at the end of the day, we're not a regulatory body and we're not even now responsible for pay and conditions.

"The ASC is no longer about tightening buckles on the strait-jacket : we're trying to ensure there is no strait-jacket.

"To that extent we are at one with the EIS but, if we can't manage staff costs, we will end up in more serious trouble. The question is how we live with the efficiency gains which we have resisted but which have been imposed by Government".

A nutshell description of FE's dilemma which will take all of Kelly's inside-tracking and rich experience to resolve.

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