For the life of Brian, give us more respect

27th June 1997 at 01:00
They treated us very well." My neighbour, chatting over the garden wall in the last of the evening sunshine, was obviously impressed by the school link programme her pupils had attended at my college. "I think, though," she added suspiciously, "that they pulled out their best staff."

With apologies to the two colleagues she picked out for praise, I think my neighbour was impressed not because she was lucky and caught us on a good day, nor because we have some super-duper staff we keep in a cupboard and wheel out for special occasions but because, as the song says, we do what we do do well. Why does that still seem to surprise people?

Why does further education have such lacklustre standing? Everyone inside the sector knows that FE works. Yet still we're treated as the poor relation. It makes for a somewhat schizophrenic existence. Now we're promised a review of funding.

While Brian Wilson, education minister, speculates on our role, we've been helping students celebrate what has been achieved this session. But behind that, there's often been private trepidation.

On the smiley side, there's been a party atmosphere pervading the whole college as students completing courses are given a platform to demonstrate their skills. The theatre arts students offered a brilliant version of A Clockwork Orange as their final production, a disturbing, beautiful portrayal of teenage violence, and wasted potential. "What's it gonna be, then eh? What's it gonna be?" Alex, centre stage, interrogates the audience.

The dance performance course chose The Wall with Pink Floyd's music, and electrifying dancing describing again the clash of cultures, the depiction of a generation stifled by its social institutions. "We don't need no education . . ." Dancers filed across the stage with school bags on their backs, trudging unwillingly to school.

In both productions, the subject matter of disaffected youth was undercut dramatically by the sheer verve and brilliance of the young cast, who obviously relished this chance to perform.

Our summer school participants, school-leavers who've come for a taster of college life, made a video about their experiences. Perhaps they summed up the attitude and spirit of the people who come through our doors and gave the best rejoinder to Pink Floyd's anthem of rejection. They sprawled irreverently over the steps of the Caird Hall, Dundee's venerable symbol of culture, and gave us a spicy adaptation of "What do we want, do we really, really want? Qualifications!"

The public face of FE has never looked better. Here at the cutting edge, life seems great. The feedback you get from inside FE and especially for those of us who have direct contact with our customers, is superb. My neighbour's eulogy was pretty commonplace. Why, then, do we continue to operate in a climate that says schools and universities are important, and we come a poor third?

Behind the smiles and the celebration of student work, then, are real concerns. Staff grow dispirited with the continued squeeze on resources. Students themselves wonder what the future will hold.

Maria was tearful as she completed her Higher National Diploma course. Would she find a job? Had it been worthwhile? Would an employer value her achievements? Mostly, Maria was suffering from post-exam blues - it happens with continuous assessment, too. But partly it has to do with the low esteem in which the FEsector continues to be held.

Our inability to demand the status we deserve rubs off on students' morale. Our graduation ceremonies take place this week. Families and friends will share students' celebration of achievement. There are hundreds of smaller, more intimate, gatherings, too, where lecturers have the chance to wish their students well, and do their bit to remind the students just what they have achieved and boost morale.

We do this in a climate where hope springs eternal. For too long, though, we have been promised a glittering future. Time and time again, we end up tightening out belts. Leaner and meaner? Or just sidelined again?

Robert Kay, chairman of the Association of Scottish Colleges, has said that raising the profile of FE is a priority because, despite the fact that FE underpins success in business and industry, "it is barely understood by the general public, far less by those in power". Small wonder, then, that expansion and innovation are underfunded. Day by day, in what we do - and do well - colleges demonstrate to the public their value and worth. But we need to educate the decision-makers, too.

The Educational Institute of Scotland has spoken about a crisis in FE. It's a good word, which means, a state of affairs in which a change is imminent. As Brian Wilson deliberates, he is calling for an end to competition between colleges. Maybe our first act of unity should be to gather in front of the Scottish Office: "What's it gonna be, Brian? What's it gonna be?" Carol Gow is a lecturer in media communication at Dundee College.

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