The long slide into political serfdom

20th October 2000 at 01:00
In his first article, Bert Whiteside chronicled halcyon days in further education, the gradual encroachment of the Manpower Services Commission and the fightback by HMI which gradually took control. And then . . .

GURUS soon stalked the land proselytising the new tomorrow. Projects on accreditation of work-based learning, accreditation of prior learning and others were lavishly funded. All were perfectly sound in terms of educational theory, but all thoroughly flawed in that we were told in advance the answers we were expected to deliver. It can be done, they said.

In the meantime, if you can imagine a continuum, the National Certificate modules ushered in by the 16-18 Action Plan sliced a significant section from the middle and made it totally different from the rest. Since this particular section appeared to be offering greater oportunities for young people, it followed naturally that changes above and below would have to be made to bring these sectors into line.

Standard grade, while an administrative complex of criterion-referenced external and internal assessment, was already bedded in. The next targets were the highly regarded Higher National Certificates and Diplomas (HNCs and HNDs). Continuity had to be established between the non-advanced and the advanced systems. Since the National Certificate modules were criterion-referenced, HNCsHNDs should be too.

Again, the introduction of this unnecessary complexity into a complex system can be attributed to the Inspectorate. In order to ensure that the universities were able to select students for entrance to second or third-year degree courses, HNCsHNDs had to do the weeding out.

The rationale was obvious - it is considerably cheaper to teach the first two years of a degree course in a college of further education. HNCHND provision must meet the needs of the universities.

The result was a stuttering complex of Standard grades, a bewildering array of ill-fitting modules and major confusion at HNCHND level. All had different recording systems and different monitoring processes. A new and frightening initiative was then added to this morass in the form of "lead bodies" charged with setting standards for different occupational sectors leading to awards delivered in the workplace and certificated by a new London-based organisation, the National Vocational Council.

Within HMI red alert lights started flashing. The great majority of these lead bodies are English dominated, but the standards they set were intended to be UK-wide. This was clearly not acceptable. The National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) which were being proposed could seriously damage Scottish provision and, yet again, threaten the Scottish Education Department. So, thanks to HMI, we now have SVQs similar to, but different from, NVQs.

Things did not stop there. Questions were raised about the weaker brethren who did not have a job and, therefore, could not be assessed at work. At this point came the next Big Idea - General Scottish Vocational Qualifications (GSVQs). These could be grouped together as awards leading to a specific career (if such were available) or would provide a basis for subsequent development. These could also be delivered in schools. Another opening for another song.

So where did this take us? Obviously, to a system of awards growing like Topsy in a vertical but unmanageable way. There were other awards as well which were bringing the system into some form of critical mass. Scotvec was encouraged to develop post-experience courses. These did not fit into any coherent pattern nor into the seamless robe.

This again was an attempt to head off incursions from English boards and again was largely drawn to our attention by HMI. Under the Action Plan what had started as a process of simplification had gone haywire.

Meanwhile, back at the Dalkeith ranch of the Scottish Examination Board things were happening. Headteachers and teaching staff were raising increasing concerns about the Highers. An inquiry under Professor John Howie was duly set up to recommend changes. As in the case of the Action Plan, the Inspectorate acted as the decision makers while Scotvec and the SEB had the role of best supporting actors. Policy-making lay in St Andrews House.

So what factors influenced these policies which resulted in the merging of Scotvec and SEB to form the Scottish Qualifications Authority? First, and this has raised its head again, there were demands to introduce the A-level in Scotland, knocking away the Higher as "the benchmark" of school education. Second, the SED slumped into the laager mentality. The oxen carts were gathered into a tight circle where all Scottish educational interests were interwoven, thus making it difficult for enemy penetration. Mergers had taken place successfully in the past. They could do so again.

The third factor was that any super-duper organisation had to be "kindly disposed to the Department". So they appointed Ron Tuck, one of the chief inspectors and an able man with a keen brain, a kindly disposition and a tenacious workrate. Unfortunately, his administrative skills, his propensity to "kick ass" and his tenuous grasp of information technology skills meant (a) that he could not weld together a coherent unit, (b) that he was loathe to bully junior colleagues and (c) that he was easily led up the garden path by his so-called IT experts.

But by then there were too many variations, too many incompatible data transference systems, too little training - too little, too late in fact. The Scottish Education Department and its successors had put the Scottish education system in the public humiliation stocks. Call it knee-jerk reaction, call it survival instinct, call it even patriotism, but the causes of our present problems lie largely at the door of Her Majesty's Inspectorate. A once proud and coherent system of awards, supported by industry and commerce, understood by pupils, students and parents, and recognised by the universities as gatekeepers to degree-level courses has come unstuck.

The incorporation of FE colleges by the last Conservative government brought new pressures unheard of in the 1970s. There were three sources.

First, assessment. Staff and students were under the cosh. Underlying this outward appearance of normality was an almost tangible sense of imminent collapse. Like a ward full of shellshocked soldiers giggling before the next real or imagined sudden noise.

For teachers, the assessment pressures are more complex and more threatening. If you had two classes of 20 students doing the same HNCD unit and the assessment required a 1,500-word essay, then you are literally faced with 40 scripts (each requiring around 15 minutes for marking and constructive comment).

In addition, time has to be allocated for oral remediation or, sadly, for remediation. Results have to be collated and recorded. This total process can result in an additional 16 hours of work for which, incidentally, part-timers - and there are an increasingly large number of them - are not paid. Full-time staff have to add this to their load. Virtually all are on the maximum of 24 contact hours per week.

Over and above this, there are the threats of unannounced visits from the validating authority or from the Inspectorate or from your own home-grown Gestapo - the internal moderators.

A plethora of summary forms, bursary forms, extension forms have to be completed. Registers, master and class, have to be photocopied. SUMs counts and ESF audit trails have to be undertaken. Meetings, interminable dreary meetings, have to be attended at which colleagues moan about poor attendance, lateness and the odd bit of disruptiveness, not fully realising that colleges have virtually no sanctions at HNCD level.

As for the students. there is pressure from the sheer number of assessments. On a normal HNC course, there would be five subjects per 13-week cycle. Each subject carrying an average of four assessments. Thus within 13 weeks each student would be subject to around 20 major pieces of assessment. Add to this the fact that the universities were demanding performance at merit level for entry purposes and you can readily understand student concern.

Even worse, if you consider that probably 80 per cent are forced to work in some form of low-paid, shift-based occupation just to make ends meet, then the educational process is not, nor could it be, a rewarding experience for them.

More sinisterly, since incorporation in 1994, an even more insidious second source of pressure has been brought to bear on teaching staff - redundancy. Several colleges, having fallen into the red, have been forced to lay off staff.

Security of tenure, such a comfort in the 1970s, has gone. Full-time staff are being replaced by part-time staff worrying if they will be required next year. Faces which fit stay. Who said serfdom had been abolished?

Overhanging all of this is the third source of pressure. Change. When will it happen again? Standard grade, NC modules, HNC Ds, SVQs, GSVQs, Higher Still? What other amazing feats of intellectual acrobatics will teachers be called on to perform? What other mountains of paperwork will they be asked to generate? And for what purpose?

Was it to protect the integrity of the Scottish educational system, to ensure the financial viability of its delivery or, more cynically, to ensure that central government keeps, through its funding arrangements and appointments procedures, tight political control?

Although HMI should be blamed for this ill-fated farrago, the deeper truth is that responsibility for turning a respected and widely understood system of awards into a shambles rests not with the Inspectorate, but with the last Conservative government. It forced the SED to jump up and down to justify its existence and, in the process, created the current mess.

At the moment I am very fortunate. I work in a superbly equipped college with a caring and enlightened principal. But for those not so fortunate, being a lecturer in FE in the 1970s was much, much nicer.

Bert Whiteside lectures in Ayr College.

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