Prime your canvas and paint

22nd February 2008 at 00:00
There are times when being a college principal is worse than boring ... and then there's now. If I didn't know better, I would be convinced that someone had cursed me with interesting times, for interesting is what they are.

We have a new skills strategy, a new economic strategy, a response to the review of Scotland's colleges, sector skills councils developing within a new Scottish political context, the disaggregation of Scottish Enterprise responsibilities, the emergence of regional advisory boards, charitable status, a new skills development body. And Glasgow has won the bid for the Commonwealth Games. If all that doesn't excite you, then you're dead.

I passionately believe there are three things that make a difference to people. The first is democracy, which we'll take as a given for now, but which needs our input to the political process to make it work properly. The second is health care, for without health there is no foundation for future development. The third is education.

I've always worked in the public sector - first in the NHS, and then colleges. So two out of my three essentials isn't bad. But have I built my career on sand?

How deeply saddening it is to hear that social mobility hasn't increased since the 1970s, and that the family you are born into may, as journalist Polly Toynbee describes it, present you with a "concrete ceiling". Well, that may have been the case between the feathered haircuts of the Seventies and now, but it doesn't have to be the case for the next 30 years for Scotland.

We have opportunities never before available to us as leaders and policy-makers. We have a new canvas on which to paint Scotland's future, and a new way of working to achieve the aims of Scotland's colleges in benefiting individuals and their communities. It's up to people like me - who have been given the stewardship of a publicly funded institution - to take up that challenge.

When I was much younger, I thought there was someone in Edinburgh or London who knew what the Big Plan was, someone who was co-ordinating public services and government initiatives. I had visions of one of those war rooms from the black and white films I watched on rainy Sunday afternoons, in which young ladies in army uniform and headsets moved cardboard planes and ships around on a huge table map. It gave me reassurance that someone cleverer than me knew what was going on.

When I shinned my way up the greasy pole, I got closer to those who were responsible for the Big Plan and realised they were just people like me, and that the Plan was really lots of very small ones stuck together with sticky tape and glue. The Blue Peter team would be shocked. They were doing their best in a situation in which change was difficult and often impossible. But we have a new situation, one in which we can focus on the outcomes, see who's already doing what, and where the gaps are. We don't need to be strait-jacketed by who did things in the past.

So, if we really want to make a difference, we need to clean our canvas and prepare it well before we start painting. The new Scottish Government has just handed us the white spirit and a cloth. We can either slap on a coat of emulsion, or we can paint the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. I know which one I'm willing to have a go at.

Susan Bird is principal of Stevenson College Edinburgh.

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