All aboard for the Executive's grand inquisition

26th November 1999 at 00:00
ONE OF the perks of being a college manager is that you are never bored. If you are not wrestling with some pronouncement from the Scottish Qualifications Authority about its computing system, it's a new "New Deal" regulation which will make the scheme even more difficult to implement. In this context, news from the funding council is always eagerly awaited.

Perhaps the most interesting news this month was the announcement of the names of the 12 colleges chosen as pilot sites for the management review of FE. The fact that KPMG was chosen as the consultants simply confirmed what the smart money had been betting on for weeks.

Details of the review had of course been announced in March in a parliamentary answer by Helen Liddell, the then education minister. It was indicated then that the funding council was being asked to review the quality of management in Scotland by assessing the effectiveness of current management of colleges, identifying the range and mix of management skills, structures, systems and processes which would best serve colleges; suggesting how the management performance of colleges might be measured and monitored; and recommending how best management practice could become the norm and how shortcomings could be identified early and addressed.

If at the time there was no rush by senior managers or members of boards of management to throw themselves from the highest point of their buildings there was certainly an edge to discussions on management issues and dark mutterings about mergers, redundancies and closures.

There were rumours of lost OBEs, public crucifixions and even an auto-da-fe to be held somewhere in the Glasgow area.

Further education being what it is most managers, even those in colleges in financial difficulty, held to the view that the sector as a whole, given its growth, efficiency savings and record on innovation, had nothing to be afraid of - far from it. Some wondered why

it was always FE that these things

happened to.

And of course there were those who perceived the whole affair as a conspiracy: that the review was really about industrial relations and had been granted to teaching unions in return for concessions on Higher Still.

In any event, Robert Beattie, the council's chairman, stated at various meetings that the review would be neither a whitewash nor a witch-hunt, which seemed, in a strange way, to reconcile two of the viewpoints.

Last week's announcement confirmed what we always knew was a strength - the positive approach of the sector, with 20 colleges volunteering to be pilot sites for the review. But what of the review itself?

I understand that in the pilot colleges information has been requested by the consultants on a range of systems, procedures and policies ranging from business and strategic planning through financial information to governance issues. Indications coming from two of the pilots suggest that there is nothing unreasonable or remarkable in the type of information being asked for.

As one principal said to me recently: "One can always learn something from any audit." That learning will go further - the funding council intends to use the good practice identified to propagate the gospel among the rest of the sector. No whitewash and no witch-hunt - but dissemination of good practice. It seems like a fair enough deal to many people I've spoken to.

I anticipate a re-emphasis on financial management and on human resource (personnel to those of us who still call it that) issues. Beyond that I hope that the vexed question of "audit fatigue" will be tackled and a rational solution found.

Any review attempting to promote better management will be welcomed. The nature of management is such that it is always capable of improvement - any place, any time, anywhere - and all good managers know it.

Norman Williamson is depute principal of Coatbridge College, Scotland's first FE college, and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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