Profile - 'The standard in FE is nothing short of miraculous'

TESS meets the Conservatives' new education spokeswoman

She may have taken up her post as the Scottish Conservative Party's education and lifelong learning spokesperson only a few weeks ago, but Mary Scanlon is an old hand when it comes to education.

The Highlands and Islands MSP can look back on two decades of teaching in both further and higher education, and she understands the importance - particularly of FE - better than most.

"I left school at 15 with a leaving certificate. Staying on was not an option: you just left and got a job. I started attending night classes to gain Highers," she told TESS.

The first in her family to go on to higher education, Ms Scanlon graduated from the University of Dundee at the age of 36 with a degree in politics and economics. After completing a course of postgraduate study, she taught economics and management at Perth College and what is now the University of Abertay Dundee (then the Dundee Institute of Technology). Before being elected to Parliament in 1999, she also spent five years lecturing at Inverness College.

Ms Scanlon has filled several posts for the Scottish Conservatives, including health spokesperson from 1999 to 2003 and communities spokesperson from 2003 to 2006. But throughout she has maintained her passion for the Scottish college sector.

"My maiden speech in the Parliament was on FE," she said. "I think FE is absolutely critical. If there is anywhere that has been widening access and opening doors to all, it has been the further education sector. They really are second to none."

Colleges were absolutely essential, she said, especially for those needing a second chance in education, mature students, school-leavers and students with additional support needs.

"For further education to achieve the standard of teaching and degrees (that it does), given the lack of resources and given that the lecturers have such incredible timetables, is nothing short of miraculous," she added.

"That is why I can't understand why we have had this horrific cut to FE, because it has been the greatest success story in terms of providing opportunities and a fairer country."

The college budget has been slashed in the past few years, from #163;580 million in 2010 to a proposed #163;522 million for 2013-14, announced last month by finance secretary John Swinney.

Ms Scanlon said that nowadays, older prospective students with few qualifications might struggle to follow in her footsteps and win a place at college. The government had to ensure that its focus on the 16-19 age group did not come at the expense of adults, particularly women, she said.

Progression from college to university also had to remain possible, she said, arguing that many people in Scotland still felt that degrees were not an option open to them.

Ms Scanlon added that she was looking forward to her new role, although she felt that her predecessor Liz Smith - who has now taken up a brief as the Scottish Conservative spokesperson for young people, sport and culture - had left her with big shoes to fill.

"I am delighted to follow on from Liz, and my initial contact with people in the education world has been that everyone has spoken very highly of her," Ms Scanlon said. "She has definitely set a high standard and will be a hard act to follow."

Ms Scanlon told TESS that in the coming weeks she planned to meet representatives from across the sector, and was particularly keen to find out more about how Curriculum for Excellence was working in schools.

"There seems to be common understanding and support, but there seem to still be concerns around implementation. That is why I will be talking to schools and teachers. And I am not frightened to ask the 'daft lassie' questions," she said.

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