Forget General Custer, we've got our own cavalry

11th December 1998 at 00:00
DOZENS OF relics from Little Big Horn were recently put to the auctioneer's hammer, and it struck me that, like General George Custer in 1886, the last stand for further education may be just round the corner. Yes, we have the promise of resources but like the famous general we are being spurred towards an ambush and there are "Indians" everywhere.

Take the new funding council. Despite the fact that 900 applicants have been attracted and the new chair, Robert Beattie, has a big reputation for fighting our corner, trepidation abounds. It is suggested that war drums of the other funding council, for higher education, are beating. The term "sizering up" the FE sector is commonplace.

Then there is the recent blood-letting round of European funding approvals. Stories are rife that our "partners", particularly higher education and the voluntary sector, are questioning the effectiveness and quality of our delivery of European Social Fund programmes. In fact, they are aiming to scalp FE's share and fill their wigwams with the spoils.

Recent Higher Still machinations seem to have missed the basic fact that FE will be the biggest provider of the new qualifications. Yet most of FE's concerns about core skills, inflexibility in assessment and the achievability of group awards might just as well have been buried along with Sitting Bull's rusty blade and scalping knife in the Montana mountains. When will people appreciate that FE is part of the Higher Still solution and not the problem?

Add in Education Secretary David Blunkett's statement at the CBI conference that "more basic skills will be built into universities' curricula", the recent report by the community education working party and statements from the Glasgow Development Agency, all of which see a necessary "blurring of distinctions" between FE and other providers, and the future might look ominous. Indeed the director of skills at Scottish Enterprise boldly announced at the launch of Glasgow's learning inquiry last week that the new resources for FE should go directly to the private sector.

In the Government's policy there is no correlation between social exclusion, funding and standards. So there is little hope for strong support for FE among HMI or administrative officials.

Nor do I see the Association of Colleges coming to the rescue without revisiting its preposterous policy on national pay bargaining and conditions of service. Surely, if we are to survive ambush the minimum position is a full-scale and independent national review of pay and conditions as the basis for a common professional service?

The Dearing committee insisted upon it for higher education. School teachers have the Millennium Review. The widespread acrimony in colleges cannot be reduced without achieving such a review.

No, the FE sector has to provide its own cavalry. It is recognised as close to the labour market and workplaces. Communities and external bodies already recognise our high standards of provision. It is no surprise that the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council is now insisting that some FE practices (for example, seeking Investor in People recognition) should be replicated in the universities as a condition of grant.

All colleges have Higher Still implementation strategies and all have shown commitment to lifelong learning partnerships. Likewise we keep securing and effectively spending European funds, successfully attacking poverty and promoting economic adaptability in accordance with government and EU policy imperatives. The European Commission often commends colleges for these achievements.

So as we enter the campaign for the Holyrood parliament everyone in FE must speak and work for a strategic framework in which the role of colleges in business development, promoting enterprise, attacking exclusion and maintaining educational standards is clarified and properly supported. A funding council may not be able to guarantee this. A parliament certainly can.

Graeme Hyslop is depute principal of Langside College, Glasgow, and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland. He writes in a personal capacity.

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