Quality is alive and well and in the colleges

3rd October 1997 at 01:00
In his response to HMI's "Standards and Quality in Scottish Further Education Colleges" report. Scottish Education Minister Brian Wilson urged Scotland's FE colleges to make the raising of standards "their unambiguous priority".

Mr Wilson is likely to find that he will have the full support of the colleges in this initiative, irrespective of size or geography.

Aberdeen College in the North-east, Cumbernauld College in the centre and Kilmarnock College in the South-west serve very different geographical hinterlands, but are they really as different in their approaches to quality as the report might suggest?

With just under 24,000 students, Aberdeen College is the biggest in Scotland. It serves a wider community of about 350,000 people, running 1,800 different course programmes.

The college has won a number of national prizes for quality. It was the first college in Scotland to get a Chartermark, is one of only two public sector organisations to win a Quality Foundation Scotland Prize for Business Excellence, has IIP and the Queen's Anniversary Prize for Further and Higher Education and the Beacon Award for Community Outreach.

"We were the first college to set up an independent internal quality audit team" explained principal Rae Angus. "Our quality audit is a separate body with every team in the college, teaching or non teaching, audited independently every year."

For the past three years, Aberdeen has also had a comprehensive performance management system which combines staff development with appraisal, so that the internal quality audit approach is complemented by performance management arrangements.

In terms of employer involvement, the college has operated a customer service approach and has an independent external annual monitoring body which reviews and addresses complaints and a guidance team covering pre-entry guidance and academic and personal guidance during the student's time at the college.

In terms of pre-exit guidance, the college has employed careers guidance staff dealing mainly with full time students since in Aberdeen, unlike the rest of Scotland, part time students are generally already employed, and in fact, only four per cent of full time students do not secure employment or continue in further or higher education.

Aberdeen sees its strengths in its independence and rigour in monitoring quality with the objective of continuously improving standards through a systematic and strategic approach as well as its customer service approach, guidance and quality assurance and audit.

There is room for improvement, as Rae Angus explained. "Over the past several years in the UK there have been massive cultural and attitudinal changes with respect to the quality of service and these broader cultural changes must necessarily affect further education," he said.

"In the future the students, employers and the local communities we serve will be determining more closely at operational level what we do and how we do it and quite frankly, as a public service, that's how it should be."

Cumbernauld College has a much smaller roll with 700 to 800 full-time students and 2,500 in total per year. According to quality assurance officer Anne Taylor, the programme at Cumbernauld is very much affected by external factors including - the SQA, the Scottish Quality Management System, Investors in People and HMI inspection.

"We have different teaching sections and have tried to find a quality system that would suit every vocational area," she said. "Self evaluation will play a very much bigger role in putting the student back at the centre of what we do."

Cumbernauld has a student charter and a student learning agreement and through the course teams the students are encouraged to become part of a studentstaff consultative group. There is also a strong guidance structure.

This is very much a community college but there have been recent increased links with industry, involving companies in the course design for short courses. Group awards are already formulated within a national framework where employers have had an input.

Staffstudent relationships are good especially since the arrival of a student adviser who is involved in pre-entry interview, staff support, and in helping students reach targets.

In terms of monitoring and acting on evidence of students not succeeding, Anne Taylor sees a need to find a suitable form of report for staff to use information correctly and improve performance, where the course team can identify weaknesses.

"We encourage course teams to look at trends, not results in isolation to see how students react to a particular model within a framework," she said.

The funding mechanism drives student achievement ratios and they always go back to the number of students enrolled in the programme. If a student leaves after November they are counted as not succeeding yet where they have left to get a job then internally we would see that as success."

Ms Taylor would like to see a shift from measuring to improving quality.

"We have been driven so much by external audit, collecting pieces of paper and trying to satisfy various bodies that there is a danger in trying to match those external factors and forget what is really going on in classrooms" she explained.

"I wish that the external bodies would get together and produce one system whereby we were audited just once a year. I would like to see more flexibility of delivery, increased resources, working more with industry, more placements. "

The situation at Kilmarnock College which has 6,700 students, is different from that of most colleges in that it is in the process of a total re-focus of its whole raison d'etre.

In 1995 the board of management decided to implement a full restructuring programme which took six months and only now is the college beginning to look again at its quality systems.

A new college manual will be presented next week and, once agreed, management will work with staff to review all college procedures across the college.

"Staff will be encouraged to write appropriate quality procedures in their own areas, giving them greater ownership" explained principal Mick Roebuck. "On the curriculum side we have been looking at internal verification, performance indicators like results and destination analysis, client satisfaction surveys, and all of that information will be available.

"We will audit and review past procedures, retaining those which appear sound and finally we will address the issue of the culture of the college.

"We are reviewing our procedures in a perspective of new strategy, new management structure and refocusing the work of the college towards meeting the needs of the community."

Mick Roebuck sees finance as a critical quality issue. "We are concerned that we neither have the capital monies to refurbish our buildings nor the investment in some areas of the college to re- equip, for example in the engineering department."

Evaluating teaching at Kilmarnock is addressed formally and informally, through student learning reviews and through guidance systems and more formally through a standarised Scottish Office client satisfaction survey which looks at teaching and learning, induction, guidance and facilities.

"Employer surveys are also important," said Mick Roebuck. "We have just completed a survey of 160 employers asking about the service we provided for their employees last year. We also carry out destination analysis and analyse our results in terms of courseunit achievement."

Kilmarnock College generally uses courses designed by SQA although the Ayrshire lace industry is involved at present in designing a vocational qualification specifically for that industry and there is further work on a project with small engineering companies designing specific vocational qualifications in areas where there is no national award.

Like the other colleges, Kilmarnock is concerned about the crudity of using completion rates as sole criteria for measuring course success when in fact there is a need to look at "added value" for students.

"Lack of qualification is no true indicator and I would argue that we have succeeded if the student gets a job, although we do have to look at the underlying reason for poor results in particular areas and improve that, " said Mr Roebuck.

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