3Next time take the lens cap off the camera;FE Focus;Comment;Opinion

12th March 1999 at 00:00
I'M SURE the collective heart of Scottish further education sank last month as a result of a slipshod piece of television "journalism" which purported to attack head on the standards of provision.

Yes, Frontline Scotland's expose of assessment practice and teaching quality did rock the sector. It certainly featured in staffroom conversations throughout the country. No surprise there: FE staff thrive on conversation. Some of my own friends even raised it with me in the pub and at social functions. The ordinary Scot seemed to accept that Scottish FE is plagued by low standards.

Yet as a former media studies tutor I am bound to say that if any of my students had presented the programme as an assessment project they would not have passed muster.

The programme failed on three counts. Its focus was too narrow. The content lacked breadth, and the sensationalist form betrayed a partiality, perhaps politically motivated, which was both subjective and lacking in the necessary balance to pass the public service broadcast test. Besides these technical deficiencies the product itself, based on talking heads and an invisible questioner, even with the mystery speakers, was quite uninspiring. What we watched was inadequate at National Certificate level, never mind meeting the rarefied standards of the BBC.

Where did the programme go wrong? First, the narrow focus meant that the views of the Inspectorate, the Scottish Qualifications Authority and the funding agencies were not taken into account. There was no mention of the relentlessly positive HMI publications on FE's academic standards. Nor was the universally accepted framework of internal and external verification featured. The rigorous course team vetting and quality improvement which are prevalent throughout the sector were completely ignored.

Second, the subject of standards in further education is surely much more complex than registers and checklists. As both principals who featured on the programme pointed out, colleges, in the context of promoting access and inclusion, measure the performance and seek the views of students throughout the learning process.

Risk-taking and supporting learners to achieve are central to our business. Also, performance indicators are collected nationally and published at local and national levels annually.

The fact is that Scottish FE students are doing more learning and achieving more success both in terms of certificates gained and progression to work and higher education every year.

Additionally, the programme's analysis of the link between funding and student achievement was spurious. The link has a minuscule impact on funding allocations, a proportion of 1.5 per cent in allocations, and is certainly not relevant to and does not determine management styles.

A focus on student retention, which is fundamental to Scottish Office and much of our other funding, might have been more fruitful. Opportunity lost.

Finally, the kind of sensationalism depicted by the programme stinks. The best way to manufacture a story - we all know - is to seek the views of the disenchanted who are likely to have axes to grind. This approach, along with an obvious hatchet job on the input of those people with something to say, is exactly what Frontline Scotland adopted. The programme missed an opportunity to set out a number of challenging questions to the FE sector.

Does taking access risks impact on quality? Should classroom observation be a basic aspect of professional life? Does our provision meet the needs of changing labour markets?

Any serious documentary would have been proud to raise and even begin to answer these questions. So why didn't Frontline Scotland take this approach? I wonder if the forthcoming Holyrood elections and the incessant quest for Government bashing which usually emerges in an election campaign have anything to do with it.

Perhaps Frontline Scotland may wish to consider that most professional of procedures in Scottish FE - reassessment. The BBC could do better.

Graeme Hyslop is principal designate of Langside College, Glasgow, and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland. He writes in a personal capacity.

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