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The sector which came in from the cold;FE Focus

The Scottish Further Education Unit has provided vital resources for the changing world of colleges. Neil Munro reports

The agency which is credited with acting as a catalyst for further education coming in from the cold has seen demand for its services almost double over the past three years.

The Scottish Further Education Unit is a pound;1.6 million a year profitable business. It gets pound;600,000 in core funding from the Scottish Office which is boosted by pound;1 million from outside contracts.

Malcolm Mackenzie, senior lecturer in education at Glasgow University, is on the board of the organisation. He says the SFEU is "a vital resource for a changing system".

The demand for the SFEU's seminars and workshops which aim to keep staff up-to-date with developments virtually doubled in three years. The unit also mounted 60 projects in 1994-95 and sold 1,630 publications.

Its work has inevitably focused on management training in the wake of FE colleges quitting local authority controlin 1993. Although this work will continue, the unit's blueprint now commits it to"connect with and sustain the work of teaching staff". Alison Reid, the SFEU's chief executive, insists that curriculum-support for colleges will not be overlooked.

This change is welcomed by Bruce Heil, head of the engineering department at Edinburgh's Telford College. Mr Heil, who chairs the education committee of the College Lecturers' Association, says: "Now is the time for the SFEU to shift the emphasis to the teachingprocess and how it can support that."

Janet Price, who has moved from York to Inverness College as principal, says the unit needs to raise its profile. She urges close co-operation with schools and higher education institution to boost staff development at a time when professional barriers are being broken down.

Hugh Walker, the principal of Anniesland College in Glasgow, says the post-16 Higher Still reforms will give impetus to these developments and will be "basic and fundamental to the work of colleges over the next 18 months".

He thinks the SFEU's role in providing well-resourced support for colleges as they evolve will be critical. The unit, steeling a march on the expected reforms, has already set up a curriculum and student-services team to recognise the primacy of student needs.

Malcolm Mackenzie says the SFEU helped drag FE in from the cold. "The 16-18 action plan, one of the great watersheds in Scottish education, began the process of attacking the image of the sector as a Cinderella service.

The Higher Still reforms will reinforce that, bringing schools, colleges and universities closer together, which can only be a good thing. The SFEU has a major role to play in that." The colleges, however, are not in the driving seat for Higher Still.

The SFEU has,in any case, other pre-occupations - aiding colleges to achieve national education and training targets, and helping deliver vocational qualifications in the workplace. Alison Reid also believes it has a role to play through the Association of Scottish Colleges in lobbying for FE.

She also wants to establish research in and for FE. This move is backed by Michael Leech, principal of Stevenson College in Edinburgh, an SFEU board member. "Research has not been seen as a relevant issue in FE," he says. "Colleges by and large are pragmatic places and up to now they have been on a survival agenda.

"Part of a research strategy must therefore be an emphasis on reflection and forward-thinking within colleges and perhaps we will have to rely on the SFEU to act as a national stimulus for that forward-thinking.

There is certainly not much evidence of forward thinking in any decisions made about FE; it simply seems to be a case of let 43 colleges separately flourish."

Mr Leech has high hopes of the Learning Society project led for the Economic and Social Research Council by Frank Coffield, professor of education at the University of Durham.

The project, supported by the Association for Colleges and the Further Education Development Agency (the SFEU's equivalent south of the border), is looking at ways in which strategic research can be organised in FE.

He adds: "There is a pressing need for longitudinal studies of students, for example, and research into the whole area of reprofiling teaching and learning as more and more adult students come into the colleges."

Mr Leech says the ESRC project could raise the profile of strategic research in FE, allowing the SFEU and others to secure funds from bodies such as the Esmee Fairbairn Trust and the Rowntree Trust.

Alison Reid agrees that research should be undertaken in colleges and says her organisation ought to provide staff with the skills to do it. She is keen for the unit to become involved in the business of benchmarking so colleges can see how they are performing in relation to others.

John Sellars, the retiring secretary of the ASC, agrees with Alison Reid that the SFEU has a key role in providing training, advice, support and information to the association as the policy-making arm of Scottish FE.

There is always the potential for tension between such a role and the unit's status as a Government-appointed quango. So far the SFEU has succeeded in walking the tightrope and it has one asset denied to FEDA - it operates in a small country and can change gear quickly to move with the needs of 43 colleges compared with FEDA's 360.

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