40 years on in lifelong learning

2nd September 2005 at 01:00
The Scots have a huge appetite for FE, but insufficient funding is going to those needed to meet the country's future skills gap, writes Tom Kelly

Would sages looking forward 40 years in 1965 have been surprised - or disappointed - by what they'd find in education beyond school-leaving age in Scotland today?

Much is the same. The trinity of schools, colleges and universities still dominate the scene. Scotland has avoided the worst excesses of mission drift, merger mania (and de-merger repentance) and new types of institutions seen in England. You don't need a guide to acronyms to know who does what.

A clutch of Higher grades is still the maker and breaker of prospects for the academically ambitious or conscripted. Despite all the efforts of Howie and Higher Still, the two-term dash to exams, three-month wait for results, and two-week scramble for places still loom over Scottish 17-year-olds. The number of Scottish institutions awarding their own degrees may have doubled since the 1960s. But the gold standard for first degrees is still the distinctively Scottish four-year Honours degree.

Scotland has used well its habit of conservative adaptation. Familiar college vocational courses - such as Higher National Certificates and Diplomas - have been modernised twice over for wider uses, and to embrace the new tools of modules (or units), credits and levels, and continuous assessment. Not for us the try-this-try-that sequence of hastily designed and quickly forgotten new types of qualifications so dear to educational reformers in England.

Devolution has changed everything! Well - not really. Much of the devolution of responsibility for colleges, for training and for universities preceded the 1997 Act. Old hands will remember the hard-fought battle with Department of Employment to get control of the careers service in Scotland. It was a Tory government which repatriated funding for the old Scottish universities and set the old CIs (central institutions) and FE colleges free as independent incorporated public bodies.

Not that we have avoided all the daft changes "for change's sake" from south of the border. Why does Scotland have ILA2 when England abandoned individual learning accounts altogether after the debacle of ILA1? Perhaps the civil servants forgot the point of Scottification (the process by which pre-devolved Scotland took part in UK initiatives). You took the easy bits - and the extra cash - from London but always defended the right to be different.

The Scottish Parliament has made a difference not only in embracing "lifelong learning" but changing the way it is organised. Support for HE students is more generous and FE bursaries more accessible than the arrangements elsewhere in the UK. (Yes, I know we students of the 1960s got grants not loans but there were a lot fewer of us then and at least Scottish FE bursaries are still grants today).

There have been big changes in the landscape, of course. Where, for example, have all the teacher training colleges gone? Why, gobbled up by universities (not just Jordanhill, Moray House, and Northern College but St Andrews and Craiglockhart), or put to new uses (Callendar Park as a caravan park, Hamilton College as an independent "Christian" secondary school, and Dunfirmline College of Physical Education as new housing after a conflagration of Wagnerian grandeur one summer's night). Who would have foreseen that in 1965?

Also gone are Scotec and Scotbec and even the Scottish Examinations Board.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority is the Scottish awarding body. A single climbing frame for all levels and types of qualifications is within reach if still resisted in some quarters. Will we soon applaud 24 credits at SCQF level 6 instead of Higher passes, and 480 credits at SCQF level 10 instead of Honours Degrees?

Scotland will stand alone in the UK having a single funding body for colleges and universities. Close debate consigned to history plans for "Scottish Tertiary Education Providers". But UHIMI, Crichton campus in Dumfries, and plans for Galashiels are pioneering new forms of collaboration between colleges and universities, and more routes between FE and HE are opening up.

The kit has all changed, has it? Harold Wilson's "white heat of technology" has cooled from lathes to silicon-chip circuitry, from hand-cranked calculators to laptops, and from chalk to PowerPoint. But has the revolution really hit teaching and learning?

As David (Lord) Puttnam said in 2003: "We have only three years to get on top of this" - then paused and admitted he'd said just the same in 2000, and also in 1997!

By the way, did Harold Wilson really open Langside College and two other new Glasgow colleges on one day in April 1964 by television link?

Now - what about the substance? "Students, students, students" is the benchmark. Does Scotland 2005 really have a joined-up system of lifelong learning open and beneficial to all who live and work in Scotland?

Participation in HE and FE has seen a dramatic and hugely important increase. Could anyone have envisaged that Scotland's API (Age Participation Index of under-21s entering full-time HE) would rise from fewer than one in five in 1983 to nearly one in two by 2002? A large portion of this is accounted for by students studying for HNCs and HNDs in colleges and what a far-sighted decision it was in the early 1990s to extend the full package of support to these students in Scotland.

One in 10 Scots now enrol each year on college courses. Participation boomed in the 1990s and early 2000s - though it has now levelled off as colleges have had to put financial security much higher in their plans.

There seems no limit to learner demand if the resources can be found to support it.

But here's the rub. Has Scotland found the right 21st-century system for all its learners? By 2018, 45 per cent of Scots of working age will be over 45. Many will have had little or no publicly funded education since school.

When will the glorious growth in lifelong opportunities extend to them? Competitive businesses and high-quality public and care services, cannot rely for new workers and skills only on cohorts of school-leavers, or immigrants from low-wage countries.

To be successful from this point, Scotland will need to be a lot smarter about the demographic challenge it faces. Otherwise the gains today which might so please our 1960s prophet will not look so good when The TESS reaches its gold and diamond anniversaries.

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