Can't get no satisfaction? Sign up for college

1st September 2006 at 01:00
A year ago, The TES Scotland announced exclusively (for a specialist educational publication) the latest Rolling Stones world tour. It was predicted that this would include Hampden Park in the summer of 2006. The prediction was wholly accurate. The Stones passed through our national stadium last Friday, having rekindled memories, extracted wonder and generated new interest.

As the Stones passed through - the analogy will become clearer - many of the anticipated 500,000 learners wishing to share part of their life with Scotland's Colleges enrolled. Carefully crafted college operational plans defining this year's activity cranked into action. "Start Me Up" was on the radio and there is much to look forward to.

As we head into 2006-07, the results of the Scottish Executive's review of colleges will begin to hit the streets. RoSCo, as it is known, is beginning to arrive in town. An early output will be a report delivered by The Difference Scotland's Colleges Make subgroup (TESS, June 9). This will confirm, and celebrate the fact, that colleges make a considerable difference to individuals and to the nation.

The period of celebration will be short, however. A mature sector will wish to retain this hard-won position and use its inherent dynamism to move quickly on to considerations of how to make a bigger difference.

The resources available to help colleges make that bigger difference will always be an issue. But a measure of the maturity of the sector in moving to this new agenda will be the extent to which questions of how to make a bigger difference will come from the sector itself and the extent to which actions to achieve the differences identified are driven internally by the sector - albeit oiled by policy and funding lubricants.

Significant structural changes are being achieved through more meaningful collaboration, with the occasional merger. Benchmarking among colleges has become commonplace and the initiative to establish Scotland's Colleges International gives further ground for optimism. Occasional blips in performance are beginning to be seen as just that, though they act as reminders that it is not quite time for Stones-like post-revolutionary complacency and decadence.

But making a bigger difference in the quality of the student experience is not dependent on structural change or strategic intervention. We have achieved much through an approach to quality improvement in which standards are set, measures determined, exhaustive evidence collected, evaluation undertaken, strengths and weaknesses identified, and actions for improvement agreed and implemented.

However necessary tool sharpening might be as part of system maintenance, it would be insufficient to meet demands of a maturing sector taking more responsibility for the quality of its own provision. It would be like the Stones seeking improvement entirely through increased amplification.

Eventually, it isn't enough to hear the bum notes more clearly; you have to play better.

Quality enhancement, which is concerned with achieving better practice through widening experience and deepening understanding, will have much to offer. It has still to find its place in the quality landscape.

The processes of better practice through widening experience and deepening understanding are at the core of what might be termed professionalism - maintaining a professional reservoir to deal with changing circumstances.

Now - the astute reader might have anticipated this - the Rolling Stones are enhancement people. They famously fell out in the late 70s and 80s.

During that time, they widened their experience through solo projects, playing with other musicians and engaged in other activities which are less well recorded or socially acceptable. They explored other musical genres and deepened their understanding of the musical form in which they excelled.

And when they made up and got back together, a step change had occurred.

They went on to make a bigger difference both to the entertainment world and to their own bank balances, which will be enjoyed for generations to come. And the word professional sits easily with them.

It would be good to get to the same point and resolve to make a bigger difference through enhancing the professionalism of our staff. We need to define that professionalism in terms suited to the unique contribution of Scotland's Colleges and use it to acknowledge and enhance their considerable contribution to the success of learners.

John McCann is depute chief executive of the Scottish Further Education Unit and writes in a personal capacity.

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