One step towards the fame, the girls and the money

18th June 2004 at 01:00
The text on the invitation to our art and design students' exhibition reads "this one step changes everything".

I can't help being struck by how apt this is as a slogan for further education. Forget putting a tiger in your tank, or going to work on an egg, "one step" could be the best marketing phrase ever. It's snappy, it's memorable, and it hints at instant transformation.

We could run television promos along the lines of Stars in Their Eyes.

Close-up of Peter, looking sad, bemoaning lack of any marketable skills.

"Tonight, Matthew, I want to change everything!" And woosh! Everything is changed and Peter beams out from the screen clutching a brand new diploma in computing, having got, as Larkin wrote, the fame and the girl and the money - all at one sitting.

Only that's not how it is in FE. A first step leads to a second. We're talking about a journey, not a transformation. Several of the learners who told their stories at the adult learners' awards ceremony here in Dundee last month talked movingly about beginning their journey.

That first step was supported by different education providers - community groups, schools, clubs and colleges - but in each case the sense of achievement was a personal one.

The awards ceremony is a way of marking the milestones, of taking stock and seeing how far you've come on the journey, and of allowing learners to share their experience, in the hope of encouraging others.

Time and time again, we heard the award-winners say they hoped that other people would take heart from their success. In college, achievement is being celebrated in our creative and cultural industries sector - not only in the exhibition of the year's work by the art and design students but also by a host of practical demonstrations of the skills learned: the end of the year dance show, glossy publications and magazines, a vocal showcase, and a stunning performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

These are platforms which allow our learners to put out their wares and invite the public to judge their success. What the public doesn't see is the hard work that is involved in honing and developing the skills needed to make these demonstrations work. As lecturers, we witness the journey.

Along the way, we see our learners develop not just particular vocational skills, but vital soft skills, too.

We see learners metamorphose. Ed, whose attendance used to be erratic, and who always had a cast-iron excuse for leaving early, comes in voluntarily on a scorching Friday afternoon because there is a deadline to meet and he's promised to help his group get the magazine layouts finished.

"Should we stop there?" I suggest, eyeing the clock as it creeps towards five. "No, we're all right," he insists, "we'll just finish this." I sigh and glance towards the blue sky, think about inventing a dental appointment, and wonder at our role reversal.

And Davie, who has spent the whole year with a worried frown; Davie, who gets wound up in knots about any assessment; Davie, who reminds me of Richard Briers on a bad day, actually managing to crack a joke about college work, and even smile. Changes indeed.

In FE, the fame and the girl and the money may not come all at one sitting, but our learners are headed in the right direction. No instant transformation, it's true. But for longer lasting results, you can't beat FE.

Dr Carol Gow lectures in media at Dundee College.

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