Casting off into a new dawn

16th February 1996 at 00:00
As removal vans trundle off from the old Scottish Further Education Unit base, Magnus Ross laments an opportunity which has now been lost for ever

Later this month the Scottish Further Education Unit relocates from its home in the building which it has till now shared with the Scottish School of Further Education on the Jordanhill Campus of Strathclyde University.

The departure of the removal vans marks the end of a chapter for both institutions.

The origins of the SFEU lay in the 16-18 action plan published by the Scottish education department in 1983. It was quickly obvious that major efforts were needed to meet the resulting curriculum development needs within FE. Initially this was done by appointing national and territorial development officers on short-term secondment from colleges.

But by the summer of 1984 most of these appointments were ending and there was some loss of momentum in the absence of a national focus for the support of curriculum development in FE.

So on March 31 1985 the Scottish Office set up a curriculum advice and support team (CAST) to be funded initially for two years. It was to be action-plan related. Inspector Jim Hay was seconded to lead six development officers from colleges. The unit was based in two rooms in the School of Further Education. CAST, as it became affectionately known, was born.

In one building there were now two groups working. The School of Further Education as it then was, devoted to teacher education and staff development, had to adapt to having the newcomer, CAST, devoted to curriculum development, working alongside.

Generations of education students had learned the truth of Lawrence Stenhouse's assertion that curriculum development and staff development were inseparable. This was, however, a lesson that seemed to have escaped some involved in decision-making.

School of Further Education staff had always been overstretched simply in coping with delivering the basic teaching qualification (FE) course to an ever-growing number of FE lecturers. With the heavy demands that this involved it is not surprising that they had not been able to meet all the growing curriculum and staff development needs of the colleges.

What is perhaps remarkable is that the staff of the School of Further Education had succeeded in doing anything at all in this area. There were notable successes. One had been the curriculum development and support work that had gone into the unified vocational preparation (UVP) initiative. This depended on the commitment of individuals within the school. It may have seemed to school staff that such successful efforts did not get the recognition they deserved in the decision that led to CAST's creation.

CAST was a success. By August 1987 it had produced a 23-point action plan staff development resource. It also began training staff development tutors. Some of what was offered may have seemed closely related to ideas that staff in the School of Further Education had long promoted. They in turn may have felt disappointment at not being more directly involved. The big difference was that CAST now had the resources to do this more thoroughly and to present it in a much more attractive and professional manner.

The funding expired in March 1987 and from April it became the curriculum services unit of the School of Further Education with expanded accommodation in its building, keeping the name CAST.

A director of CAST was appointed, Ian Natusch. In theory at least he was accountable through the director of the school for further education, Stuart Niven, and ultimately to the then principal of Jordanhill College, Tom Bone. In practice however, CAST operated semi-autonomously and there was little formal collaboration with the School of Further Education although individual staff did develop constructive informal contacts.

This may now be seen as a major lost opportunity to develop a unified structure. More far-sighted vision might have brought a more constructive relationship between the different activities that were being pursued in the same building. As it was, there seemed to be little attempt to bring about any form of integration. The mood which had been set at the top, quickly permeated both groups of staff, benefiting no one.

Once the tone had been set, CAST and the School of Further Education developed in their own ways. CAST rapidly expanded with a new wider remit, which included promoting vocational education and training by providing an advice and support and maintaining a national information and resource centre.

At an early stage, it might have been possible to create a unified organisation sharing a vast, unique pool of experience in all levels of staff and curriculum development to the benefit of the FE service and Jordanhill College.

From 1987 to 1991 the director of CAST still at least technically reported to the director of the school of further education. 1989 saw the school become the Scottish School of Further Education and the period up to 1991 was probably the last good chance to the organisations together.

The work of CAST grew rapidly and its success can be judged by the fact that within two years it was able to support almost 40 per cent of its total budget from externally-funded projects. Meanwhile within the Scottish School of Further Education some tended to view the growth of CAST with suspicion. Sand introduced inside an oyster's shell can go on to produce a pearl. The sand was beginning to irritate the oyster. Now, the pearl is being removed and the oyster is suffering.

It might still have been possible to unify the organisation but it was daily becoming more difficult. By now a major initiative would have been needed to achieve a unity and it might have needed active encouragement from the SED. It would have needed the whole-hearted commitment of the respective directors and the management of Jordanhill College. It never happened.

In June 1989 Eddie Miller and Jim Neil recommended in a report to the Scottish Office that a Scottish further education unit be set up to support FE colleges and their new management regimes. Consultations suggested greater independence for CAST and a wider remit were needed so CAST was transformed into the SFEU.

The new SFEU had its own steering group chaired by an under-secretary in the Scottish Office education department but it was still within Jordanhill College. It was now no longer accountable to the Scottish School of Further Education. But the SFEU director was still answering, at least technically, to the principal of Jordanhill College. More accommodation was made available in the Scottish School of Further Education base, causing more pressure on accommodation for the rest of the work of the school.

The Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act, 1992, transformed further education in Scotland. The new system of "incorporated" colleges brought huge opportunities and challenges to support the FE through the major changes. SFEU found ample scope to expand its work again.

The impending merger of Jordanhill College with Strathclyde University brought a decision from the SOED in 1992 that SFEU should be completely disengaged from the college and set up as a public body. It continued to rent accommodation on the Jordanhill Campus but by January 1995 the board had decided to consider options for relocating. Now, under its new chief executive, Alison Reid, the SFEU is going to Stirling and a whole new era is dawning.

When the last removal truck to Stirling pulls away from the SSFE building, a chapter in the history of provision for the FE service at Jordanhill will be closed. While with the benefit of hindsight it is easy to criticise it may seem that a golden opportunity slipped through everyone's fingers, almost unnoticed.

In the present climate income-generating ability is highly valued in the university. The ability to meet demands of clients is the touchstone of quality and success. A track record in publishing quality material and research brings recognition and rewards. It is hardly unreasonable to suggest that the track record of SFEU could have been an enormous asset to Strathclyde University had it been possible to have combined its work and operations into one single structure and framework incorporating the SSFE and as an integral part of the work of the faculty of education.

All of this is in the realm of "might have been" so far as the SSFE is concerned. Perhaps it might always have been impossible to unify the organisations involved. There are people from both organisations who do not believe that. There are many more who regret this aspect of the history of the SSFE and who still cherish the quite unprovable but troublesome feeling that it could all have turned out very differently I Magnus Ross lectures on the further education system in the Scottish School of Further Education at the University of Strathclyde, Jordanhill. He has taught there since 1981. Before that he taught for 10 years in FE

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