Education's only chance lies in a Scottish parliament

26th April 1996 at 01:00
In the Middle Ages access to the inner sanctum of education was through a knowledge of Latin. Now, for the practitioners in further education, it requires a knowledge of Scottish Vocational Education Council jargon.

"Practitioners" and "students" are of course now heretical terms since lecturers are referred to as "deliverers of the service" while students have now become our "customers".

In the political realm the equivalent change is that "civil society" has now become "the market-place". The ethical problem is that the market-place requires no moral rights or obligations since it is based on the profit motive or as Mrs Thatcher said "there is no such thing as society".

But if our "customers" are entitled to value for money why are they being so fraudulently exchanged? Is a "qualification" in FE which allows the student almost infinite help and retakes, really a valid one? The Tower of Babel that is Scotvec would have us believe it is. Yet it is my belief that far from being concerned with the fundamental aims of education, Scotvec largely exists as a bureaucracy increasingly extending to almost every aspect of FE, hence its involvement with the Scottish Examination Board and the Higher Still reforms of post-16 education.

Further education "delivery" now exists in the straitjacket of learning outcomes, performance indicators, diverse instruments of assessment and is subject to endless internal and external verification.

There is little scope for imaginative input from staff. No one denies the necessity for adequate quality standards, but I can think of no other profession which constantly requires an external body to verify and check its standards. This is itself a negation of professionalism. Moreover, most FE colleges now have their own internal quality monitoring staff and procedures to liaise and supplement those of Scotvec.

We are told that quality must be paramount and Scotvec extols the virtues of the BS5750 badge of quality (which it now has) and the Investors in People award, yet these are not really measures of quality. They are means of measuring a paper trail - the audit of the bureaucrat and there is no more top-heavy educational bureaucracy than Scotvec.

But when a sizeable number of FE colleges are talking about compulsory redundancies how can we be talking about Investors in People?

Quality is also inextricably linked with funding in FE. Between 1996 and 1999 the total funds available to FE from the Scottish Office will fall from Pounds 245 million to Pounds 235 million. This means that in our so-called market driven education system more colleges will compete for less money. Already a large number of colleges are lowering admission standards to obtain enough students.

Moreover we now have the ludicrous instrument of assessment called the SAR, the student achievement ratio (ie. the lecturers' quality of delivery is partly measured by the number of students who have achieved a qualification). What a nonsense it is since students may fail to achieve for a whole host of reasons from bad health to financialfamily problems as well as a lack of ability if we continue to go on lowering entry standards. A student destination ratio, the number of students who actually obtain employment as a result of achieving their qualification, may in some senses be meaningful but certainly never a student achievement ratio.

The truth is that since colleges became independent of local authority control in 1992 FE has been atomised in a scenario which can only lead to still lower standards, fewer colleges and an atmosphere of disintegration not co-operation.

Incorporation was supposed to be about decentralisation but is really about increased centralisation via the Scottish Office since the absence of local authority control means that we have lost public accountability to non-elected quangos - the board of management.

The salaries which some college principals and senior managements have awarded themselves via their boards is a national scandal. Last year the principal of Bell College, Hamilton earned Pounds 2,000 more than John Major.

This means less public money available for the funding of student grants and resources. Many of our students now suffer from endemic financial problems which adversely affect their studies.

Another factor is that many colleges have obtained money from the European Regional Development Fund, and over the next few years it will concentrate on helping eastern European countries. This could have a sizeable impact upon many colleges.

The only real hope for FE in Scotland is a new government which would give responsibility for education to a democratically-elected, publicly-accountable Scottish Parliament.

It is time now for people in FE to debate the agenda for that change. What is clear is that college boards of management and educational bureaucracies must be made more democratically accountable. Above all, education must be more adequately funded. As a long-term investment in our economic and social well-being it cannot be entrusted wholly to the short-term vagaries of the market-place.

Jim Park is a member of the national executive of the College Lecturers' Association of the Educational Institute of Scotland and a staff representative on Fife College's board of management.

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