John Russell

8th February 2013 at 00:00
At a time of major upheaval and swingeing cuts in further education, the chair of Colleges Scotland's chairs' congress talks about his role in the newly formed group which aims to speak for the sector on learning opportunities, funding and the big strategic issues. Interview by Julia Belgutay Photography by James Glossop

What made you want to be a teacher?

I didn't want to teach when I left school, mainly because of how teaching was structured - I wanted to do something to find out about business. Procter and Gamble planned out my life - they owned you, body and soul, and I didn't fancy that very much as a lifestyle. I had always wanted to teach, so I went back to college.

What made you leave teaching?

As chair of Glasgow's geography panel, I was really into developing learning materials and chaired the S1 and S2 working party. The BBC was looking for members for their secondary programme committee. I joined, and a job came up as education officer in Glasgow. It was the time of the famous Munn and Dunning wars, and nothing was happening within the secondary sector.

You still work in schools - what exactly does that involve?

That's my hobby. I wouldn't really call it work. I'm lay chaplain at St Andrew's and St Bride's in East Kilbride. I go in every day, and I work in an integrated way with the whole staff. I offer pastoral support for pupils and teachers, and I am the bit of Sellotape, the guy who wanders about after the timetable and says, "Have you got a problem? I will take them for half an hour." It's great.

What is the most important skill you bring to your new role as chair of the chairs' congress at Colleges Scotland?

Capacity to take the big view, to work with people, bring people together to work together. It's the skill of chairing. You are looking for consensus, and you are working to a future - the past is not as important as the future.

Colleges Scotland has been criticised for being unable to speak with one voice - is that changing?

I think it has changed - because people have changed, and the sector has changed. We now have joint chairs and principals meetings every two months and we have included all of the regional leads.

What is the biggest challenge facing the organisation this year?

To cope with the change that is going on and to speak with the voice of the sector in addressing issues like learning opportunities, funding, big strategic issues. It is coping with an ongoing change. The biggest challenge is holding everybody together.

How do you define the role of colleges?

Their basic role is to provide by and large post-school learning to skill and reskill people for the world of work. It is part of lifelong learning and colleges transform people. Nearly a quarter of the people who attend them come from the poorest 20 per cent within Scotland.

What is their biggest strength?

They are local. A lot of our people would not go anywhere else. And once you get them on to the ladder, they can move. But they are national, too. A lot of the people who come to college need learning support, and the way college lecturers work is a bridge between school and maybe pure higher education, and it provides this mixed economy where people do NQs, HNDs, HNCs and degrees.

Do people undervalue the college sector?

Some people do. It is because of a lack of knowledge of what goes on. That is why I call them colleges, not FE institutions. It is not a spring platform. The mixture here is phenomenal. And Colleges Scotland's job is about saying, "Look, we provide learning substantially more cheaply than secondary schools per head, and infinitely more cheaply than universities per head." It is not just about that, but about saying, "Here is what we are doing for the market - here are all our partners".

Will colleges still be able to fulfil their role with the cuts they have seen?

It will change. It has got to. It would be dishonest to say it won't change. If I look at just what the budgetary changes have been, you are talking about 20 per cent over the past two years. We don't know what next year is going to bring, but it might be a substantial thud, and even if you consider what flows back in through SDS (Skills Development Scotland), that's tiny.

What impact have you seen from the cuts?

We cannot meet the demand. I don't know what exactly the demand is, but intuitively I cannot see how you can reconcile the budgetary element to, "OK, everything is just the same." It can't be.

With your background in guidance, are you concerned that people with additional needs could be losing out under the cuts?

There is always a risk, but I think that colleges by and large try to protect those people. Colleges are different from other parts of tertiary education because they are people-orientated, and therefore vulnerable people will be protected as far as possible.

Will the government's reform agenda lead to a more effective sector?

That is crystal-ball gazing. Having said that, it is the sector's job to make itself more effective. It's our job within Colleges Scotland to say, "Can we get everybody working together for the benefit of students?" If that is the principle, we have got a chance.

What headline would you like to read in TESS in a year's time?

College places meet student demand and provide effective learning.


Born: Glasgow 1946

Education: St Roch's Primary and St Mungo's Academy, Glasgow; University of Glasgow; Notre Dame College, Bearsden

Career: area manager in field marketing, Procter and Gamble; geography teacher; PT guidance; senior education officersecretary Educational Broadcasting Council for Scotland; managing director, Hope Scotland; chaplain, St Andrew's and St Bride's Secondary, East Kilbride; chair of North Glasgow College; chair of Colleges Scotland's chairs' congress.

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