Chaos came to call

6th October 2000 at 01:00
In the first of two articles, Bert Whiteside gives his perspective, based on 30 years' FE teaching, of what he believes is the disarray hitting Scottish qualifications awards

I BEGAN FE teaching in 1971. After years of forelock-touching and grovelling in mills and factories, I wanted to do something which made me feel professional, was not too demanding, and paid well.

That was FE in the 1970s. Broadly, in 1971 terms, the equivalent salary should now be around pound;34,000, instead of pound;26,000 for a 10-hour weekly teaching load and no internally assessed work. The only administrative burden was filling in the register.

The latter was something at which, alas, I did not excel. The Keeper of the Registers took me to task many times. One student had received a 100 per cent attendance record. This was thought to be rather odd since the poor soul had died in a motorcycle crash two weeks into the course. He had been, I said, with me in spirit.

There were no corporate plans, no departmental targets, no internal validation and co-ordination meetings. There were no marketing strategy teams or occupational profile teams.

Assessment was based on centrally produced and marked examinations. When your charges entered the examination room they were out of your keeping. If they failed, the fault was theirs or the exam body's, but never the teacher's.

The curriculum was passed down from the boards, in my case the Scottish Council for Commercial, Administrative and Professional Education (SCCAPE). These curricula were wider than the planned enlargement of the M25. You literally had freedom to teach any version, of any part which you fancied.

Teaching was incredibly pleasant. You walked into a receptive audience, gibbered for 45 minutes and wandered off, normally to the staffroom where the "academics" played bridge, and the accountants scoured the Financial Times.

However, perceptible changes had begun. Some colleges were becoming colleges of higher education while others became "feeders". Academic drift had started.

The argument about status is central to this movement. In the late 1960s Harold Wilson's Labour government had created the Council for National Academic Awards. This organisation was prepared to come to a college and, after a thorough investigation, award it the right to offer a CNAA-validated degree.

Proposals for these degrees were requested and, by God, did that dominate our life. It was the ultimate exercise in invention, because you were not allowed to duplicate existing degrees. "BA in Modern French with Archery" was clearly designed for those wishing to teach in our more notorious comprehensives.

I was fortunate to get out in 1974 to join the then Scottish Business Education Council (SCOTBEC). The SED had decided, in the late 1970s, to disengage from non-advanced FE. Four hundred and ninety-one awards proliferated, offerd by 23 awarding bodies. It was bloody chaos.

Into this picture came the Manpower Services Commission. It inspired meaningless qualifications which expanded at an enormous rate, competing directly with the "established qualifications". The system was reaching breaking point. No one knew what these certificates meant and, more importantly, where they led. Colleges were filled with TOPS, YOPS, WEEPS and many other mad schemes. The lunatics were taking over the asylum. The education system at 14-plus was beginning to creak.

With the arrival of Mrs Thatcher's Government in 1979, civil servants were on the mat to justify their costly existence. One Government department, however, had clearly identified the vulnerability of the traditional FE system in England and Wales. The Department of Employment (DoE), using its creature the MSC and operating from the Red Fort of Sheffield, had seized the opportunity of ensuring its survival and expansion by filtering back into the (DES) Department of Education's province - the schools.

The already weakened DES was unable to prevent the MSC's launch of the technical and vocational education initiative (TVEI) in 1983. This meant the MSC not only confirmed its growing control of FE in England and Wales but allowed it to dominate the school curriculum from the age of 14. The Scottish Education Department had to act against the well-funded English hordes. The HMI, who might have been out of a job, decided to return somewhat rapidly to oversight of non-advanced FE.

Within weeks the "Action Plan" had been produced. TVEI was not necessary in Scotland! A political reaction to a political problem. But who gives a toss about the young people anyway?

Basically, the situation in Scotland would be "different". We already had a criterion-referenced award, Standard grade. We already had simplified the number of examining bodies to two and we could, therefore, produce a cohesive, integrated criterion referenced approach faster than elsewhere.

The vehicle for delivering this would be Scotvec. An amalgamated body bringing together the technician and business education councils, SCOTEC and SCOTBEC. Scrap all 491 non-advanced courses and bring them together as a seamless robe of modules - thereby allowing the vocational, the academic and the informal, YOPS and YTS to cross over between streams.

The HMI was in the driving seat. SCOTEC thought it could have seized control of the programme. No it couldn't. Arm's length? Don't you believe it. If the civil servants in the education department want you, they come guns ablazing.

Within 18 frantic months, around 3,000 National Certification (NC) modules had been produced. The editing of these lay in the hands of the HMI. SCOTEC and SCOTBEC staff merely served as a secretariat.

Standard grade took approximately 20 years in its development, its implementation and its awarding system. The National Certificate took 18 months. It was designed for FE exclusively.

Promises were made by the HMI that only 50 schools would be involved in the piloting process. Three hundred and twenty-nine had registered students in the first months.

No extra resources had been promised for external validation. The external validators were not appointed till January 1987. Worse still, teachers in FE colleges who went on summer holidays in June 1986, came back to find that their established CGLI, RSA, SCOTEC and SCOTBEC courses had been modularised. Staff development, my bottie.

The crisis, and crisis it was, resolved itself for three main reasons. First, although there were many complaints, very few of the children of the professional classes were pursuing NC modules, and no one listens to the unprofessional parent.

Second, potential employers, flummoxed by Standard grade, made assumptions that it was part of that programme.

Third, the appointment of a new chief executive to preside over Scotvec, Thomas McCool, helped.

Against all the odds, the NC modules had survived, but perhaps not with the greatest of esteem. A sign over the loo roll in one Glasgow public convenience reportedly read: "Scotvec modules. Please take one."

The years with Tom McCool were painful. He fought to protect the organisation against the ill-thought-through and potentially destructive initiatives of the HMI. He was largely successful. By the time of the merger with SEB, he was clearly in the driving seat.

But was that what the department wanted - all that power in the hands of a proven, competent and able man who had been quite deliberately headhunted by the SED in 1985 to save its own backside?

During my last few years with Scotvec, the answer to the longer term future became clear. In 1990, the then education minister, Michael Forsyth's neighbour, David Miller, was appointed chairman. A quite charming and decent man, Miller was clearly put in to ensure that HMG's policies, not those of Tom McCool, would be implemented.

Arm's length? Most definitely not.

Bert Whiteside currently lectures at Ayr College.

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