Don't throw the baby out with the bath water;FE Focus

3rd September 1999 at 01:00
'The SFEU supported 4,000 delegates at 99 conferences. For Higher Still alone there were 32 events and a wealth of case study material' ONE OF the best things about the holiday period is that for those of us with young children it offers an opportunity free from the trammels of the daily work routine to spend some quality time to see if our offspring are developing as well as we would have hoped.

Thankfully, for most of us this is a fulfilling experience. We see an individual who has developed in their own right but with a bit of you in there somewhere.

These are the kinds of emotions that the FE sector has about the Scottish Further Education Unit. The SFEU is both an entity with its own expertise but it also displays many of the features of the sector. It is the child of FE in Scotland.

One of the last actions of the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department before the Scottish Executive came into being was the publication of the review of the policy and financial management of the unit. On the face of it this is a standard, five yearly procedure, carried out for all non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs). Somehow, though, when you read the report it is difficult not to react in a way you would if a teacher or another parent was criticising one of your kids. As a retiring associate director of the unit that was certainly my own reaction.

Although the report argues for a continuation of the SFEU, partly because of the positive responses of colleges (87 per cent responded to the consultative exercise expressing a wish to retain the unit with a wide range of services and an explicit FE focus), it also suggests that it should lose NDPB status, cease receiving grant-in-aid and narrow its activities to curricular development.

The main concern that I have is that I don't think the unit is given full credit for the impact it has had. Likewise, its potential for smoothing change - proven beyond all doubt in the period since incorporation - may be lost.

I think the review has got one thing right - the SFEU is at its best in the area of curriculum development. We all know that without support from the unit the FE sector would be less well situated in terms of Higher Still planning. We also know that we desperately need this support to continue.

But let's give credit where credit is due. The unit's contribution to FE's impressive progress over the years has been stalwart. From middle and senior management developments projects to the QLT Handbook and a series of excellent quality assurance events. From software development to organisational and collaborative development. The SFEU's total quality management project shaped FE in Scotland.

The range of the unit's activities continues to be quite appropriate. That's why so many FE people use the service. Last year it supported almost 4,000 delegates at 99 conferences. For Higher Still alone there were 32 dedicated events and a wealth of case study material. There is a consistent 90 per cent satisfaction rating from conference attendees. Add to this a website which is visited almost 10,000 times a month and what we have is service with a high turnover which is customer-friendly and popular.

Perhaps the key issue is cash. While the unit's core funding at pound;680,000 is not insignificant it is only half of the overall operating budget of pound;1.4 million. This is a healthy balance of core and marginal funding. I also think the money is well spent. Judging by the sector's response to the initial consultations on the future of the unit so do most of my fellow principals.

Maybe there are "political" issues at the forefront of the review team's thinking. Certainly ministers would welcome one less NDPB with a direct line of acrimony to a Government department.

Whatever the reasoning I would urge the Scottish Executive to give the SFEU another two or three years under present arrangements. Don't throw the baby out with the bath water - wait until the FE family is ready to let its child leave home.

Graeme Hyslop is principal of Langside College and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland. He writes in a personal capacity. His e-mail address is

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