There were gloomy predictions of chaos when colleges left council control, but contact with schools is flourishing. Neil Munro reports
"Three-year contracts and 25-year mortgages" are not the most obvious reasons for establishing school-college links. But David Allan, HMI, believes they are powerful arguments for the government's grand design - to ensure that lifelong learning and employability take the sting out of job insecurity.
Colleges were incorporated five years ago this month. Since then schools, education authorities and the colleges themselves have all striven to counter the gloomy early predictions that taking further education out of council control would make it well nigh impossible to plan post-16 education.
In Scotland there is a very obvious engine ensuring that schools and colleges remain on the same track - Higher Still.
It is now a truism that the reform programme cannot be implemented without involving FE. Schools will be unable to offer the full diet, and many courses can only be offered by colleges. The General Teaching Council has even been prepared to tread on eggshells and give its blessing to lecturers teaching non-school programmes in the secondary sector.
"Higher Still will reactivate links that may have gone stale," says Gordon Paterson, schools liaison manager at Clydebank College.
Mr Paterson, who is secretary of the national network of schoolFE liaison officers, believes Higher Still will formalise a great deal of what is already taking place.
The technical and vocational education initiative in the 1980s began the collaborative process, as many senior pupils were put through their paces at local colleges. The west of Scotland had another pre-incorporation taste of liaison through the contentious area curriculum planning groups in the Eighties. Although the experiment collapsed, many of the links have remained. "The fact that they have survived both incorporation and local government reorganisation is remarkable," Mr Paterson says.
Around 1,300 fifth and sixth year Glasgow pupils spent between half a day and five days a week on college link courses between August and Christmas last year.
John Wheatley and Anniesland colleges run Easter revision courses for Standard grade and Higher pupils. And a number of colleges offer guaranteed places to pupils who achieve specific pre-entry qualifications.
Education authority figures also attest to flourishing school-college contacts. Richard Barron, senior education officer in Glasgow, says they enjoy a good relationship with the city's 10 colleges. Liz Reid, until recently director of education in Edinburgh, also acknowledges "superb" links between her authority and its former colleges.
Mr Barron believes that while Higher Still may not increase collegiate activity, the new programmes will be better planned and integrated. Glasgow has already set up a strategic planning group involving college principals, secondary heads and council officials.
But Ron Tuck, chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority and one of the architects of Higher Still, told a meeting of the liaison officers last year: "You will encounter schools who may suspect you of trying to steal pupils. But people in further education also have their suspicions about schools dumping their most difficult pupils on FE."
The argument could be turned into a "win-win situation," Mr Tuck said, if colleges and schools ensure that their first priority is "the interests of the students, and not their own institutional problems".
The SQA has been doing its bit to honour commendable achievements in education and training. One of last year's winners was Inverkeithing High in Fife, where the partnership with Lauder College is regarded as a model of its kind. The school's 90 per cent pupil retention rate is up from 65 per cent in the early 1990s, partly because the wider options opened up by the college link have persuaded pupils to stay on.
The two have also established clear lines of progression for their students. Those with Standard grade 1 and 2 awards are expected to aim for Higher. Standard grades 3 and 4 are a pointer to General Scottish Vocational Qualifications at level II, while pupils with Standard grades 5 and 6 are guided to GSVQ level I.
Lauder also operates a guaranteed places scheme for Inverkeithing pupils.
Mr Paterson believes schools and colleges can complement one another. "All students leave school at some time," he says. "It's just a case of when, and colleges have to be geared up to respond. The best way to do that is for the two sectors to talk to each other."
Mr Allan says an HMI survey showed that good links give fifth year pupils greater vocational experiences and access to specialist facilities. They offer "help for those who have partly outgrown schools and for whom the current curriculum does not work very well".
He acknowledges there are financial, organisational, and personnel barriers against establishing good links. There is also "mutual suspicion".
But Mr Allan says good links are characterised by colleges taking a "non-imperialistic" attitude to schools. Colleges should build on what schools already have in place, show sensitivity to the school year and the needs of pupils, ensure they have clear administrative procedures and develop regular and systematic communication.
The inspectorate wants to see colleges run specialist courses with schools, give guaranteed access to more specialist awards at the same level or the next, and use open learning to extend the curriculum.