Disciple of garden centre revolution;Lifelong Learning;Interview;Linda McTavish

21st May 1999 at 01:00
In the first of a three-page series Julie Morrice talks to Linda McTavish, the chair of Community Learning Scotland

It's the most super name," says Linda McTavish, new chair of Community Learning Scotland. The title rolls off the tongue more easily than Scottish Community Education Council, which it replaces. But for McTavish, the change is more than a re-packaging exercise, it is a chance to make people aware of changes in community education.

"The new name states what Scotland, as a society, needs to do," she explains. "It's about us growing our own jobs and enriching lives and communities."

McTavish believes in the power of education. "Individuals change through learning, without a doubt," she says. "But communities change too."

In a career which has taken her from writing modern studies modules for adult learners in the Seventies, to her current position as principal of Anniesland College in Glasgow, Linda McTavish has succeeded in keeping the larger and smaller picture in focus.

She talks of the need for Scotland to look to Europe and the United States for best practice in FE, and thinks nothing of sitting down to discuss small-business needs with representatives of the 10 FE colleges, IBM, Apple, the European Union, and a similar project from France. But she is very much in touch with Scotland's disadvantaged communities. She talks of lives where something utterly insignificant, like a 50p bus fare, can make all the difference between climbing onto the learning ladder and falling off it.

"I always ask myself, if I had been born in this street in this community, would I have made the choices I have, would I have taken those steps? Sometimes, I have to say 'no'."

Recent reports on community education and lifelong learning have called for "a major transformation of attitudes and practice" in community education, and admitted that "education has ceased to capture the imagination of a large part of the Scottish population". McTavish is unlikely to rip up the structure of community education - she says her job will entail listening to people, highlighting best practice, establishing and cementing partnerships.

Community education has been the poor relation in the educational family. But with a government committed to making a reality of lifelong learning, it is to be pulled back into the fold.

The vision is of an organisation that works on a national level, in partnership with schools, colleges and businesses, but which gives equal consideration to working with the communities it serves and understanding their individual needs.

Local authorities will be required to produce community learning plans, built from the bottom up, and detailing the needs and aspirations of local communities.

"We have to take community learning out to the communities," she says. "And that's not just holding the board meeting outside Edinburgh. Each local authority will have its own strategy, communities will set their own tone. People from all backgrounds bring different things to the table.

"We can't assume that everyone will like their learning packaged in the same way," says McTavish. "Think of garden centres," she announces, rather surprisingly. She is referring to the transformation that has taken horticulture out of the hands of arcane and off-putting seedsmen and nurseries, and turned it into a leisure activity for millions.

For many people, education with its colleges and universities, its modules and certificates, is confusing and alienating. McTavish wants learning tailored to individual needs: "Where is your direct learning line, and where does it take you? It mustn't be like a bagatelle board, with people being bounced from one course to another without any sense of direction. People have to be able to see where it's leading to."

McTavish talks of the changes in community education as "pruning for new growth". She hopes local authorities will take this opportunity to review which department community education should come under. "In some places it has been adopted by the education department, and that seems to make sense," she says. She also hopes local authorities will work creatively in "the blurry bits" between departments, and outwith the authority itself:

"All successful businesses are networking organisations."

The result of all this collaboration across sectors will be a gradual change towards community education workers acting as facilitators rather than providers of education, a greater focus on highly disadvantaged groups, and an effort to minimise the duplication of provision.

"Community education is quite a hidden sector," she says. "There isn't a map of the amount of learning going on in communities the length and breadth of Scotland."

Part of her job will be to sketch that map, and encourage communities to share their experience and expertise. Information and communications technology is high on the agenda: for isolated communities in particular, the screen is the door to learning.

At Anniesland College they call it the elastic campus, the outreach courses which the college runs in conjunction with Glasgow's community education department. From an introduction to computing, to advanced woodwork and cookery for men, the college runs more than 60 courses within the city and many more outside.

Anniesland's successes and problems give a taste of what CLS will be up against in the next few years. McTavish points out the wide range of age-groups who use the college, and the fantastic relationships Anniesland has forged with community education and schools. But she also points out that getting young men interested in education is still a challenge and that a large majority of the college's older returners to education are women. "That is an issue for us," she says.

The other major hurdle to overcome is finding performance indicators for community education. Reports bandy about terms such as active citizenship and social inclusion, but neither of these can be easily measured.

"We have to work out what is the measure of success," says McTavish. "We have to play our part in capturing the imagination of learners. If we engage and capture the imagination of diverse learners that will be a measure of our success."

Community education has suffered badly from cuts in recent years. The shot-in-the-arm advocated by the Government will have significant spending implications. McTavish is looking with confidence to the next round of public sector funding.

"The investment in education will continue," she says. "The knowledge economy can't just be the frock on top: it has to spread throughout, or else we'll be back to rich and poor knowledge economies. I don't see anybody not buying into that idea."

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today