Ian Ansdell talks to four FE principals to find out why their colleges are free from the strife that afflicts so many others
Why do we never hear of financial fankles and industrial relations spats in some colleges?
Before answering, Ros Micklem, the head of Cardonald College in Glasgow, offers the stout defence you might expect from the chair of the principals'
forum of the Association of Scottish Colleges: "The bad press is unjustified and troubles are isolated and sporadic.
"There have been one or two quite big difficulties which have been exploited by people who wanted things to be seen in a bad light, and that sets a negative expectation," she says.
"Some industrial relations difficulties are hard to handle in a climate of very limited resources and a very unpredictable environment, so sometimes it's not surprising that things don't go well.
"But look at what FE has achieved - nearly half a million enrolments, improvements in efficiency, operating in 4,000 different locations across Scotland, and 90 per cent of learners are satisfied or very satisfied with the experience they get in colleges. I don't think you can say that these are signs of a sector in crisis."
So Ms Micklem concedes that Cardonald is indeed good, but insists that this is not in contrast to the vast majority of FE activity. She attributes the college's success firstly to "excellent" staff and then to a clear sense of purpose.
"The board, management and staff all understand what we're here to do, so you don't get people pulling in different directions," she says. "That's a good foundation for everybody to do their best."
When she reveals that the college's third winning way is "to create a learning organisation", she is not stating the blindingly obvious but stressing the importance of owning up when things go wrong and learning from mistakes.
"It's sometimes painful, and it would usually be easier to hide or deny or turn your back on the situation. However, it makes a big difference if you can be confident enough to admit that you've made a mistake, acknowledge it and learn from it. That helps to create the sort of trust that we rely on here in industrial relations, quality of service and links with our organisational and commercial partners."
Before arriving at Cardonald in 1997, Ms Micklem was deputy principal for human resources and quality at Wirral metropolitan college on Merseyside. Employing what is clearly a well-honed euphemism, she explains: "Wirral was a college in difficulty. I learned an awful lot from that."
In terms of dealing with determined negotiators from the staff side, this learning has translated into fostering openness."We don't always agree and we can't resolve every issue. The staff representatives have a case to make and interests to protect which cannot always be reconciled with the resources available. But we are able to sit round and talk to each other openly, and trust each other to tell it like it is.
"It's not a matter of who can make the other side give ground. We go into things with a problem-solving approach. The relationship has to be bigger than the differences between us."
Her views find an echo across the Clyde at Anniesland College, whose special needs teaching and enterprise culture was cited by the Scottish Qualifications Authority last month among reasons for naming it College of the Year.
Linda McTavish, Anniesland's principal, says: "We have a partnership with the unions and spend a long time in discussions. Our views are often opposed, but we've always found that by talking and listening and taking on board each other's concerns we can find a middle ground. There has to be a willingness on both sides to go forward on common agendas."
She stresses: "It's not been easy. We've all had to work within the parameters of the funding regime."
All successful colleges, however, are united in one view - that students are what really matter. Cardonald's Ros Micklem says: "It may sound a bit wet, but the thing that consistently gives me most satisfaction is seeing students succeed.
"When they're showing off their work or receiving their certificates and you see the pride and sometimes incredulity on their faces when they realise what they've achieved and how they've exceeded their own expectations - I think there's nothing quite like that. If this college is special it's because the staff across the board really enjoy students'
success and want to make it work for them. Other interests aren't allowed to get in the way of that."