For better and for worse

19th September 2003 at 01:00
Eugene Clarke looks back on a third of a century spent in Scottish further education

A tale of triumph over adversity; of betrayal and backstabbing; of absurdity, comedy and the odd tragedy; of personal (and corporate) achievement and failure. Neanderthals and neophytes. Yes, working in Scottish further education for the past 30 years or so has been nothing if not interesting.

I suppose I should have guessed that the path that lay ahead would not be a smooth one when, on a sunny day in 1974, I heard the words: "This is a load of pish!" My sense of "why did I make this move?" was enhanced when I identified the speaker in my first liberal studies class as the same lad I had expelled from his secondary school some weeks before.

Yet after a few weeks we had established a working relationship that continued for several years via the odd pint in the pub we shared. This was the first of many demonstrations of the difference that the college experience could make to an individual who had not fitted well into school.

Over the years this has been the one thing that has been a constant part of my job, and the most important part of being involved in FE, namely the idea of making a difference to someone's life. In fact, if anyone working in FE stops believing they can make a difference - or worse, stops caring whether they do make a difference - then that's the time to go.

While there have been personal landmarks - progressing (if that's the right term) from lecturer to senior lecturer, to section head, to manager - what is probably of more significance have been the changes in the curriculum and governance of Scottish FE.

Who can forget the sense of absolute bewilderment when we were faced with the idea of modules. Having been the only person free that day I was dispatched to Telford College (now Edinburgh's . . .) to learn about this wonderful action plan. On my return, I found I was designated the module king and was henceforth regarded as the expert on all things modular.

I thought, and still think, that the change was a good thing and that the previous system was ill-founded in terms of educational philosophy and practice. Unfortunately the speed with which the changes were introduced gave great scope for criticism and cynicism that had a long-lasting effect.

The fact, too, that schools were little involved reinforced the separation of school and college curricula which led to so much disputation during the implementation of Higher Still many years later.

The unitisation of Higher National qualifications produced a little less pain, perhaps, but again in hindsight could have been handled better. The gutless compromise which led to merit passes for individual units was a complete contradiction of the idea of criteria-referenced assessment and led to huge problems of inconsistency of standards.

A combination of internal assessment with insufficient external moderation meant that lecturing staff were sometimes put in a difficult position when faced with pleas from students needing to pass a particular unit, often a servicing one such as communication, or requiring X merit passes to continue with a higher education course.

Our colleagues in universities, which over this time have become an increasingly important destination for so many mature FE students, did not exactly cover themselves in glory either. I had several lengthy telephone calls with admissions tutors from Scottish and English universities during which I was sometimes driven to despair by the total ignorance HE staff showed of HN qualifications.

It angered me that a university could, by its own staff's admission, reject a student because they only had six instead of seven merit passes when they had no idea what was actually involved in the merit award system. And my anger was compounded by ethical dilemmas when I knew colleagues were tempted to modify results so that their student would be offered the place they deserved. Hopefully recent changes in HN guidelines and the introduction of the graded unit will improve matters.

While all these curriculum changes were going on, it was suddenly announced to general surprise that colleges were to be incorporated or, as it was known colloquially, "privatised".

Being released from the smothering embrace of local authorities would mean that colleges would provide courses that were market-driven and that competition among them would lead to the best expanding while those that didn't read the market correctly would go to the wall. Those college principals who were frustrated entrepreneurs (I often wondered why they had spent all their careers in institutions if they were that keen on private enterprise) went daft in their efforts to be innovative and began building their empires. We had HNDs in wine tasting for people with white socks and better HNDs in wine tasting for people with red socks.

It couldn't last. The Scottish Qualifications Authority is now reining in many of these local courses and trying to rationalise them into a coherent national provision. But there has been a positive outcome from this which has been the realisation that students matter and that colleges should be much more aware of the quality of service their customers receive.

Student and peer evaluation, if obtained in a valid and acceptable manner, can only improve the learning experience and the now commonplace use of satisfaction surveys is a sign that this has been accepted by all concerned.

Incorporation also brought for many colleges a major change in management style which, for some, has been a painful experience. I personally welcomed the move to spread responsibility more widely and to delegate decision-making. Unfortunately many colleges have undergone a number of attempts to restructure themselves, sometimes because they got it wrong the first time, sometimes because a new management concept became fashionable and sometimes because the principal changed and the new one wanted to try something different.

Boards of management at times seemed to overlook the impact on staff of all this change. The atmosphere in many colleges is not comfortable as staff become increasingly worried about job security, salary levels and general conditions. The Educational Institute of Scotland, of course, has had a part to play here with the rapid abandonment of national agreements at the early stages of incorporation.

So is Scottish further education better now than it was when I had my first painful experience? Undoubtedly it is. More people from a much wider range of backgrounds are participating. Colleges are being hugely imaginative in how they respond to learner needs. Extensive programmes of staff development mean that lecturers are better equipped to help people learn.

Provision of new facilities means future learners will have an even better experience.

As for me? I have left my career in FE because I want to pursue a personal goal. Just like my former students, I want to bring about a change in my life.

Eugene Clarke is managing director of Real Communication,

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