Neil Munro A new professional body to improve the training of college staff is being proposed by the Scottish Executive, which could make registration compulsory - although a voluntary system is also suggested.
But a complex consultation paper issued last week by the Executive is not clear which staff are to be included and there is a prospect of a clash with the General Teaching Council for Scotland. The council, supported by the Educational Institute of Scotland, has long claimed it should be the professional body for lecturers and wants registration to be compulsory.
That, however, will depend on which staff are to be included. The Executive's press release and consultation paper refer at various times to "lecturers", "college staff", "lecturers and other staff", "lecturers and other college staff particularly those who contribute directly to the learning process", and "other groups such as librarians, support staff, guidance staff, instructors and technicians".
The section in the consultation paper that sets out the options for a voluntary or regulatory body, however, is exclusively confined to lecturers. Registration would be compulsory if a regulatory body is established, but "support staff" would be allowed to join in a voluntary capacity which would mean they would have to undertake a certain amount of continuing professional development but would not be subject to a "licence to practise".
The plans also envisage that the GTC could become the professional body for "college staff", although which sections is not defined. Another option is for the Scottish Further Education Unit, which already promotes staff development for colleges, to do the job.
The response from the GTC to the proposals is wary. Like other key players, it welcomes the consultation, but Matthew MacIver, the council's registrar, suggests it has "the experience, the structure and the drive to become the professional body for both teachers in schools and lecturers in education.
"That would be a colossal step in moving Scotland towards an integrated education environment whose lifelong learning is taken seriously. We will never achieve that if we continue to compartmentalise education."
But the concern in the colleges is that the proposals could lead to just that, if some staff are left out. Jane Polglase, policy manager for the Association of Scottish Colleges, said that "ideally" it would like the new body to be inclusive. But the key figures, at least at the outset, must be lecturers and those supporting teaching and learning.
The consultation paper, launched by Jim Wallace, Lifelong Learning Minister, takes no view on whether membership of the proposed body should be compulsory or voluntary or a mix of the two. It does point out, however, that the Institute for Learning, which has been established in England to promote the professional standing of lecturers in the post-16 sector is currently voluntary, and the Government is now considering whether registration should be a requirement.
Colleges are believed to be split on this issue, many having resisted for years the idea of compulsory registration with the GTC. Ms Polglase said that, whatever the system, it had to be flexible enough to encourage potential lecturers with experience in industry, the crafts and business, who may not necessarily have the paper qualifications, to come into FE.
Mr Wallace said in his statement that professional development of college staff had to be put on a sounder footing because of ever increasing demands. "Partly due to legislative changes and partly to an ever widening client base, college staff are now expected to wield greater levels of knowledge, skill and responsibility than ever before," he said.
"I believe that systematic training and development is vital to the achievement of a motivated and effective workforce."
A range of factors has come together to persuade the Executive that the time is now ripe to consider a professional body for FE staff, including developments elsewhere and in other occupations, the outcome of a consultation last year on lecturers' professional development and the need for better school-college links.
A recent HMI analysis of 70 subject reviews in 11 colleges was also an influential factor, concluding that, while students' learning is predominantly positive, "further progress is needed if all learners are to receive consistently high-quality learning experiences". The needs of teaching staff had to be addressed, HMI said, particularly those of new recruits.
Figures from the Scottish Further Education Funding Council highlight a particularly marked difference between colleges in the proportions of full-time lecturers with a teaching qualification in further education (TQFE): the national average of 86 per cent ranges from 33 per cent at Sabhal Mor Ostaig and 57 per cent at Lews Castle to 100 per cent at Glasgow College of Food Technology, Newbattle Abbey and Shetland.
Another influential factor stemmed from the findings of the workshops on professional development last year which, the consultation paper says, expressed the view that FE lecturers have "a rather low status in relation to schoolteachers and higher education lecturers".
The paper states that, while this may be understandable, "the Executive does not consider that a professional body should be created purely to improve the status of lecturers or other staff who work in colleges. In the Executive's view, the need for and desirability of such a body should be judged on its potential for levering up standards and helping to improve the quality of learning and teaching across the whole sector."