Fortunately, Foster is not a recipe for Scotland

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
Some in Scotland may have gulped at media stories of closures and enforced mergers of colleges in England as a consequence of Sir Andrew Foster's report, Realising the Potential.

It would be silly to suggest that there are not some perceptions and pointers which we could borrow and put to good use in Scotland. But the FE sector in England, overseen by the octopus-like Learning and Skills Council and its local offshoots, is a very different animal. Not only do we now have a single Scottish Funding Council for colleges and universities but we had already embarked on our own review of Scotland's Colleges.

There are some nice ingredients in the Foster report. Who would disagree with his ambition of a stronger "learner focus", better engagement with the requirements of employers and jobs, greater parity of resourcing with schools and universities, simplified inspection, and greater self-regulation? But do these make a new more satisfying and sustaining plum pudding that we should try?

There are also indigestible brass farthings in the mix: decisions on local priorities by bureaucrats (local learning and skills councils); "contestability" (or privatisation); and "staged intervention" all the way up to closure for courses or even colleges deemed to be persistently failing.

It is difficult to judge from a distance whether the report should be assessed overall as positive, negative, or balanced towards colleges. Our counterpart in England, the Association of Colleges, gave a generally upbeat initial response, particularly when Education Secretary Ruth Kelly promised a reduction in the gap between colleges and schools in funding for A-levels.

This highlights one of the key differences. We do not have the "hybrids", which successive secretaries of state have seen fit to promote in England such as sixth form colleges, or colleges of higher education (similar to Bell College, which is now firmly in the Scottish HE sector).

Another difference is our take on the college recruiters' dilemma. Do you choose those who have the strongest CV, track record and job prospects? Or do you accept some responsibility for trying to transform the prospects of individuals who are less likely to succeed and need more help to do so?

Foster wants to shift colleges in England clearly to the "employer focus", arguing that jobs are the best route to social inclusion. But, as the AoC has already pointed out, this runs the risk that employers will take the message that it is for others to train people in the skills their products or services require.

Here, the dilemma is set more firmly in the broad context of "lifelong learning". No one need doubt that the Scottish Executive puts economic growth, and the employment and high levels of skill this requires, at the forefront of its agenda. But it is now accepted here that "employability"

is not a single step from education or training into a job, but a series of transitions which many need several stages beyond leaving school to surmount. This is rather different from the severely utilitarian view of Foster.

The review of Scotland's Colleges - now affectionately known as Rosco - will take until 2007 to complete. It gives us a chance to refocus purpose and strategy in a less frenetic way. Work is at a very early stage (see the e-bulletins at

Ministers accepted a "skills committee" to ensure that relevance to employment is at the heart of the work of the new Scottish Funding Council.

Rosco will also place centre-stage the contribution of Scotland's Colleges to the economy. But it will not overlook the wider benefits to communities and, above all, to students.

So don't spend too much time struggling to ingest Foster. You'll only end up breaking a tooth on some of the hard-to-swallow bits (for example, the assertion that "colleges carry large overheads" - which is unsupported by evidence or benchmarks).

The old days of the "Scottification" of England's initiatives have gone. A few more Scottish ingredients in Foster's recipe might have made it lighter on those now trying to digest it. Trusting your institutions, and funding their capacity to deliver, is the best way to secure range and diversity of provision, as well as better collaboration with employers and other providers.

When colleges are treated, and adequately resourced, as comprehensives of lifelong learning, the benefits are greater and more sustained for all the stakeholders.

Tom Kelly is chief executive of the Association of Scottish Colleges.

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