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Scottish Learning Festival - Joined-up capacities

Scotland's colleges have a vital role to play in the delivery of A Curriculum for Excellence, says the head of the Scottish Further Education Unit.

"The Cabinet Secretary has formed a programme board to inject more momentum into A Curriculum for Excellence. It met for the first time (at the end of August), and Scotland's Colleges are represented on that board," says John McCann, acting chief executive.

Given that colleges have not so far been "foremost in people's minds" in preparing and delivering the new curriculum, this carries two clear messages, Mr McCann says.

"Colleges have a significant contribution to make to the education of young people aged 3-18. And A Curriculum for Excellence should not be confined to that age group.

"We want older people to be responsible citizens, confident individuals, successful learners, just as much as we do 18-year-olds."

On the first point, the average age of students in college - 32 - might make them seem irrelevant to the education of 3-18s. But simple statistics are misleading (especially with such a skewed, long- tailed distribution). There are actually far more teenagers attending courses in Scotland's colleges than any other age group.

Indeed, 35 per cent of all Scotland's 17-year-olds are studying at least one course in a college. Skills for Work sees around 35,000 enrolments each year in college courses, as part of school curricula, and schools liaison officers have been appointed around the colleges.

"So if A Curriculum for Excellence is about young people aged 3 to 18, then colleges clearly have a great deal to contribute," says Mr McCann.

Funded mainly by the colleges themselves, the SFEU delivers professional development and resources to staff in Scotland's 43 incorporated colleges. It aims to make research and government policy accessible, while also acting as the voice of the sector to policy-makers. One area of education 3-18 in which SFEU is very active, is in support of the "very com- plex" More Choices, More Chances agenda, says Mr McCann. "Our involvement grew out of a lot of work we had already done on access and inclusion."

The Scottish Further Education Unit has been developing resources and disseminating good practice, particularly from "hotspot education authorities", such as Glasgow and West Dunbartonshire, in which college work has been funded by government, to other parts of Scotland which also have young people not in education, employment or training, though in lower numbers.

The target group is potentially younger and less engaged than college staff normally encounter, says Geraldine Ratcliffe, SFEU adviser for access. "So we've been designing activities on young learners and on managing the learning environment for the disengaged."

These include safe, fun, non-threatening activities, assessing existing skills innovatively and actively, and using technology to engage them. "We have devised methods that don't require staff in colleges to take vast amounts of time out," she continues.

"We go in and deliver workshops tailored to particular colleges. We have studied the research and identified key actions staff need to take to meet the needs of these young people - and, very importantly, to connect with those who haven't yet disengaged from education, employment or training, but are at risk of doing so."

A vital point is that youngsters in the key target group for More Choices, More Chances often fall between the cracks of different agencies and institutions, and are then left largely to languish. "It's a high-profile issue about how we make sure information gets shared among the key agencies - schools, colleges, Careers Scotland, social and health services," says Ms Ratcliffe.

"There needs to be a joining-up. So if a young person is offered a place in college, for instance, but fails to take it, then somebody catches them and follows them up. It is all about sharing information."

The phrase captures the essence of the work done at SFEU, where 60 members of staff research, add value and share information and good practice across the sector and beyond, says Mr McCann.

"We ran a series of awareness-raising events on A Curriculum for Excellence, funded by the Scottish Government, and we carried out a survey of colleges. We found a lot of good work already in terms of the four capacities, as well as a feeling of: `That is what we do.'

"There is a process going on, however, of re-framing and re-thinking in terms of the capacities - A Curriculum for Excellence as a college issue. But our formal engagement is a recent development - and one that we very much welcome. We are now in there as a member of the programme. So let's go forward."

A vital message for the health of Scottish education as a whole is that the college sector should play an active role earlier in new policy developments, says Mr McCann. "Student-centred learning, for instance, has been a strong feature of colleges for over a decade.

"One of many good things about Curriculum for Excellence is that it provides schools and colleges with a common language. In the past, conversations would have been along the lines of: `We've got lads here who are disengaged. Can they come to you and do motor vehicle?' Now those conversations can be much richer, with far greater potential: "How can we work together to develop the four capacities?'"

As an admirer of Skills for Scotland, John McCann sees that strategy document's "learning system" as a key concept for the future, he says. "As a country, we have a great opportunity, because of our size and the relationships built up over the years, to create a seamless learning system - a system that will develop A Curriculum for Excellence capacities in every learner."

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