John Henderson

23rd September 2011 at 01:00
Further education colleges face their biggest shake-up in a generation, with the Scottish Government calling for mergers, more transparent governance and a focus on the 16 to 19-year-old age-group. John Henderson, the voice of Scotland's college principals, gives his assessment of the challenges ahead. Photography by Fraser Band

To those in the sector who haven't met you yet, how would you describe yourself?

I am very passionately committed to working with colleges because I have seen over my time how they transform lives. That means a lot to me and that is why I wanted to work with colleges again in this job. Colleges are full of people who are very committed to helping others who have perhaps not had the best chances and giving them second chances.

What has been the biggest challenge so far?

I think there are two issues. In a membership organisation, one is getting to know the members, and getting to understand what their needs are at a time of potentially rapid change for colleges with a Government that wants to reform post-16 education and training. The other challenge in the job is to come into the organisation itself, lead and provide leadership and get to know the people within it. That is the dual challenge I have faced, and I have thoroughly enjoyed it.

What do you see as the biggest challenge coming towards the sector?

I think the biggest challenge will be funding - how to deliver the type of service we want to the students of Scotland in a very difficult budgetary situation.

What, in your view, is the most threatening aspect of the `Putting Learners at the Centre' reform programme launched by the Government last week?

I think threatening is the wrong word - I would use the word challenging. The most challenging thing for the sector is the scale of change and the speed of change when trying to deliver a high-quality education for students at the same time. When you go through a period of rapid, institutional and funding change, that is going to soak up a lot of management time in colleges. The risk must be that the focus goes off the delivery of quality education and some of that is diverted onto this changing landscape.

What would a change to regional groupings of colleges mean for the sector?

The Government has signalled that it is in favour of regional colleges but, on the other hand, it has been flexible enough to say that there are other models - such as federations or more imaginative models - that might work in different parts of urban Scotland. It has also recognised that in some parts of Scotland, in the Highlands and islands, and the south of Scotland, there is no obvious way of actually creating a regional college, because of the distances between settlements.

Will it be possible to maintain local provision levels as well as student numbers in a set-up like that?

I am not going to say it is not going to be possible to deliver it because clearly the management, if what does emerge is a larger college, will want to have a focus on local provision. Indeed, if you look at the proposals in terms of the new approach to funding, there is very much going to be a strong focus from the Funding Council on how best to steer colleges through that funding mechanism to deliver to local economies. There are risks, clearly, if you move away from the micro to a larger scale, but these are not impossible to deal with.

Will the sector be able to deal with the additional pressure placed on it by the Government promising a place in training or work for every 16 to 19-year-old?

I think the sector can and will respond to that. Colleges are already giving priorities to that young age group and will continue to do so. If the funding is not there, you can't do everything, and that might squeeze out those above the age of 24, and that is a risk. We need to continue to talk about lifelong learning. I would say yes, it is perfectly legitimate for the Government to put a priority on that group, but we need to find the space and the money to deal with adults as well, because jobs are not for life, people need to retrain, they need to get new skills.

Do you think the Government green paper makes the ongoing Griggs review of college governance redundant?

In the paper, there is general reference to governance issues and the need for transparency, but there is no precision in this area. So there may be less in the Griggs review than perhaps we thought about regional structures - because the direction the Government wants to take in that area seems to have been spelt out - but the paper is much less precise on the detail of how boards are appointed and how they account for their activities.

What are your hopes and fears for the sector?

The hope is it will remain in essence what it is. It is a very responsive sector with a lot of professional, committed staff delivering very well for a lot of people and changing lives. The risk is that while staff will do their utmost, I am sure, to continue to do that, and improve that service at a time of great upheaval and change, during that period the risk is that the student experience will suffer.


Born: Edinburgh, 1953

Education: Broughton High, Edinburgh

Career: Civil servant at Scottish Office and Scotland Office, chief executive at Scotland's Colleges since March 2011.

Subscribe to get access to the content on this page.

If you are already a Tes/ Tes Scotland subscriber please log in with your username or email address to get full access to our back issues, CPD library and membership plus page.

Not a subscriber? Find out more about our subscription offers.
Subscribe now
Existing subscriber?
Enter subscription number


The guide by your side – ensuring you are always up to date with the latest in education.

Get Tes magazine online and delivered to your door. Stay up to date with the latest research, teacher innovation and insight, plus classroom tips and techniques with a Tes magazine subscription.
With a Tes magazine subscription you get exclusive access to our CPD library. Including our New Teachers’ special for NQTS, Ed Tech, How to Get a Job, Trip Planner, Ed Biz Special and all Tes back issues.

Subscribe now