It's only rock and roll, but I like it

19th August 2005 at 01:00
John McCann kicks out the jam with the Rolling Stones, on quality enhancement and student success.

You may have missed it - the Rolling Stones have announced their next world tour. This time around, they announced their intentions to the world's press at a college - the Julliard School in New York. (Could this represent a future business and PR opportunity for one of Scotland's colleges?) Rolling Stones Inc will have done market analysis - area mapping on a global scale. They will have noted where CD and DVD sales are slipping, and where new markets are opening up. They, like Scotland's colleges, intend to bring their world class product to China. And I will be adding to their considerable (and hard-earned) bank balances in the summer of 2006, possibly at Hampden Park.

The Stones will have reviewed the last tour, rehearsed possibilities to be included in set lists and decided on the latest technological innovations to be adopted. They implement processes of continuous improvement which, I suspect, often escape those who are less than outright aficionados. Though critical opinion varies, the most significant improvement introduced on the last tour was to keep Ronnie Wood sober.

At Scotland's colleges, we have student retention and achievement. Every four years, our strategic approaches to quality are subject to review, consultation and amendment. Two particular consequences are apparent this time around. The first is revised approaches to external review; HMIE has embarked on its next cycle of college reviews with a renewed and welcome focus on the learning process in colleges. The first reports are now coming through the system.

As part of the freshness in quality, enhancement processes are to be added to the armoury of practices. These processes will encourage college staff to take a broader look at the issues to be tackled in providing an even better experience for learners in colleges.

Enhancement represents an invitation for colleges to work laterally and bring in new ideas, practices and resources. Staff will be encouraged to look beyond their own workrooms, course teams, faculties and colleges. Even the work of the Stones is derivative of others and modified in their own creative processes - the Blues movement of Chicago, Motown soul and, in one of their career dips, fashionable 1960s flower power. They don't seem to have done badly out of it.

Following the lead of higher education, the Scottish Further Education Funding Council is promoting a thematic approach and developing activities, selected in consultation with the sector. The first such theme is to be student retention and achievement. This is something which never goes away and every so often it's good to bring it back into sharper focus. Going back to the roots, as they say in rock circles.

One of the first contributions to the enhancement theme has been a review of research literature, (below), commissioned by the funding council and carried out by Critical Thinking and the Scottish Further Education Unit (SFEU).

People will draw their own conclusions from the report which is based on more than 100 published documents. Some of the conclusions of the authors were: The substantial work of the Learning and Skills Development Agency south of the border, and its raising quality and achievement initiative, has created a valuable repository of experience to inform further innovation and development which might be a useful model to follow.

There are gaps in the literature on the perennials of "distance travelled" and soft skills. These have renewed emphasis in the new SFEFCHMIE framework, and we seem to be avoiding the paths of the past where we anticipate the answers to be in statistical analysis and rigid mechanisms of measurement.

Published research has a focus on particular groups of learners and, given the diverse profile of learners in colleges, there would seem to be areas worthy of exploration to add to our understanding of the complex issues around retention and achievement.

We need tailored approaches informed by, and customised to, particular circumstances; knowing and thinking about what goes on elsewhere would seem to be part of being informed. Staff in colleges are the principal agents of success; they need support in the considerable challenges they face amid the constant pace of change.

One of the contributions the SFEU is making to the theme of retention and achievement will be through the sector subject networks. In partnership with HMIE and associate assessors, and with sponsorship from The TES Scotland, the first "college people week" was organised in June.

Practitioners gathered at the SFEU to explore issues on student success, to share experiences and to determine actions to take back to their colleges for implementation in session just about to start.

In designing the activities for college people week, some key assumptions were made. Chief among these is that student success is an outcome of the relationship between an institution (and everyone in it) and a learner. As John Roueche of Texas University reminded us during his recent visit to Scotland, everyone has a part to play and everyone needs to focus on student success.

Learners are successful when they develop confidence and become motivated, when they become better at learning, when they enjoy the learning process and when they want to keep on learning and achieve the learning goals related to attainment of vocational skills and personal development.

Colleges can always do better in producing successful learners and, for every college meeting a challenge in student success, another may have already addressed it. We therefore need to get better at sharing our experiences and influencing one another.

So there we are. The Rolling Stones are touring again; we are raising the stakes on the learning process and we are to have renewed focus on student retention and achievement on a progressive agenda of enhancement. All is right with the world. You do not look into the lyrics of the Stones repertoire in order to find enlightenment and the pithy quotation; frankly, without the music, some lyrics border on the ridiculous.

Maybe "Gimme Shelter" could be adapted: "Success, learners, it's just a thought away, just a thought away . . ."; an informed, creative, shared thought turned into effective action by college staff perhaps.

John McCann is depute chief executive of the Scottish Further Education Unit.

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