Driven to distraction;FE Focus

21st May 1999 at 01:00
FE job interviewees should be allowed the odd gaffe, says Graeme Hyslop, after all even principals can't answer many of those critical questions

There is something paradoxical about the new driving test. On the one hand, it has been made more difficult to reflect the complexity of modern-day road use. On the other hand, each candidate is allowed to make 15, albeit minor, mistakes. Sounds like a job for BBC's Frontline Scotland, which seems to allow its reporters similar leeway when covering further education.

Or maybe the test should be seen as a model for job interviews in FE. Like the driving test, the FE test requires a combination of theory and practice. And the FE candidate, faced with a world of great complexity and paradox, must surely be allowed the odd gaffe.

It seems that more people in FE are applying for promotion or a new job. Not only are we witnessing a remarkably high turnover of college principals - 11 posts advertised in the past year, 19 in the past two years - we are also, I think, at the beginning of a jobs boom stemming from the Comprehensive Spending Review and the emerging plethora of centrally co-ordinated projects.

So what are the challenges facing these candidates? There are a number of questions that aspiring applicants might find difficult to answer.

Take the curriculum, for example, which has experienced a gear-change recently. Could the candidate explain how after 15 years of promoting student-centred approaches, the FE sector now accepts, without question, the emergence of package-based learning - where either technology drives the learning process or the lecturer is rendered marginal? Are we paving the way for mass instruction and, therefore, the dilution of the profession?

Or could heshe tell the interview panel how the sector so easily accepted a move back towards external assessment? Does this herald the re-emergence of exam coaching?

Navigating the funding issues would be no less difficult. How would the applicant explain the fact that, as David Blunkett oversees the demise of the English FE Funding Council in the name of rational regional planning and funding coherence, Scotland is launching its own FE Funding Council?

Likewise, is anyone in Scottish FE clear why the current review of FE funding could move the methodology towards that used in higher education, while, at the same time, the strategic review of HE funding looks likely to result in a methodology approaching that of FE?

Questions of planning throw up more paradoxes and problems. As training and enterprise companies are dismantled south of the border, why are we are still expected to work more closely with our own local enterprise companies? As the new Parliament re-configures local authorities, is it likely that our planning partnerships will require fundamental adjustment? Will Agenda 2000 usher in the death of FE's contribution to national employment planning after 10 years of gradually securing a serious role in this process?

Our industrial relations, too, take some manoeuvring. We are probably at a crossroads. Is anyone really surprised that it was the two colleges which led the "end national conditions now" lobby in 1994-95 that were first to leave the Association of Scottish Colleges? Why is the sector so averse to a protocol between management and staff unions? Can a national planning framework operate without national baselines on salaries and conditions?

Perhaps principals should go into emergency-stop mode on these issues. Many of us don't pass the FE test first time. Some of us, in fact, make the same mistakes each time we sit it.

Perhaps the important thing is to ask the questions. As someone who has recently passed a test, it's just like driving a car - the answers will come with practice.

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

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