If schools and colleges come closer together, so must professional standards, says Gordon Kirk
he Scottish Executive's consultation paper on collaboration between school and further education deserves careful consideration, for it could entail radical change. Commendably, the Executive's education department has sought to engage the relevant stakeholders at a much earlier stage than has often been the case in the past: they were invited to participate in a conference which provided the framework for the consultation paper and were given the opportunity to submit 500-word statements on the key issues which have been incorporated in the paper itself.
An indication that minds are far from being made up is that the paper makes no specific recommendations, contenting itself with background statements on the issues, interspersed with 51 questions. The responses to these questions will provide the basis for a further consultation paper, which will offer firm proposals on the way ahead. That, surely, is an approach to consultation that might be adopted across the whole spectrum of policy-making.
As for the consultation paper itself, the substance is complex. Declaring in its title the aim of Building the Foundations of a Lifelong Learning Society, it is concerned with the ways in which schools and further education colleges might be drawn into closer collaboration.
Fittingly, the paper addresses at an early stage the purpose of securing closer collaboration. Several justifications are advanced: to strengthen the vocational orientation of the school curriculum; to enable secondary school pupils to undertake studies that are not provided by schools; to encourage more young people to continue in education after they reach the age of 16, by enabling them, while they are still at school, to embark on a programme that leads to a vocational qualification.
These are all entirely laudable purposes, all of them affirming that FE colleges and their staffs can contribute to the significant enrichment of the educational experience of school pupils. There are two caveats, both acknowledged by the consultation paper. First, the primary locus for the education of 14-16s is the school not the FE college. Pupils may attend college to participate in specific activities, for a minority of the time: the central aim is to create "a more flexible school-based curriculum, around a well-balanced core".
Second, as that phrase clearly implies, while one of the aims is to strengthen pupils' vocational education, there is no intention to divorce pupils from the wide range of activities that constitute a balanced education. That is, the FE contribution to pupils' education needs to be embedded in studies that transcend the vocational, an encouraging emphasis.
Two of the arguments for strengthening school-college collaboration are suspect. The first concerns the claim that provision needs to be made in FE colleges for those pupils who have become "disaffected by school". The capacity of colleges to provide an enriched educational experience for pupils will surely be granted, but it is to do a disservice to FE if it is seen only as a dumping ground for those who have been alienated by school. Besides, some might argue, schools ought not to be so easily relieved of their professional responsibilities.
Second, much is made in the consultation paper of the need to enable pupils to experience the more adult ethos of the FE college. Again, it must be asked why schools should be failing to treat young people appropriately. In any case, this policy becomes obviously self-defeating if it is adopted too widely, and may well have the effect of diluting the quality of the educational experience offered by FE.
If it is granted that more productive and extensive collaboration between schools and FE colleges is worth developing, there are numerous consequential problems of a practical and operational kind that need to be addressed. What is required is to bring two sectors of education, with their own jurisdictions, funding arrangements, modes of governance, and professional cultures into closer alignment. Judging by the number of questions it poses, the consultation paper appears somewhat apprehensive in regard to these problems.
The funding problem ought not to prove insurmountable. If the standard principle of educational resourcing is followed - that the money should follow the student - FE colleges will require to be properly funded for their additional responsibilities. Besides, if part of pupils' education is actually taking place in FE colleges, local authorities should have to surrender funds in direct proportion to that part of pupils' education that is not provided by the schools.
More serious practical problems arise with regard to the machinery for collaboration. Here the consultation paper refers to "community learning partnerships", which will create a framework within which all the learning needs of a particular community are identified and met. FE colleges are bound to be key players in these partnerships. It seems reasonable to ensure that heads of secondary schools are also included and are party to whatever plans emerge. They need to ensure that, in association with colleges, a pattern of provision is established that really does provide the curricular enrichment required.
The effectiveness of the collaboration between schools and colleges will depend on the professional expertise and commitment of the staff involved.
Here we face a central difficulty: teachers in schools are required to be professionally trained to national standards, to hold a teaching qualification and to be registered with the GTC for Scotland. Such requirements do not extend to teachers in FE. Why not? It is clearly unsatisfactory, especially as FE comes to play a larger role in the education of 14-19s, not to have equivalent professional standards across the board.
Several lines of action commend themselves. The colleges should commit themselves to a professionally trained staff, all of whom have a teaching qualification. The Executive should finally accept the advice of the GTC and make registration compulsory for all FE teaching staff. The review of initial teacher education currently under way should ensure that programmes make more strenuous efforts to deal with vocational education and the part all teachers play in its promotion.
Finally, a new teaching qualification should be introduced, not to replace existing provision but to allow a teacher to operate across school and FE.
This last suggestion has been mooted many times over the past two decades.
Now is the time to bite the bullet.
Professor Gordon Kirk is former dean of the education faculty at Edinburgh University.