Rules of engagement
"It doesn't get much better than this," says Angus College principal John Burt.
You can tell he is pleased. His delight with the college's inspection report is understandable: there are no "points for action" (almost unheard of, as the college says) and the "confidence" statements show HMIE endorses the progress of students, the high quality of learning and teaching, the active engagement of learners in the work and life of the college, and the management.
Mr Burt is particularly pleased with the verdict on "student engagement", one of the three touchstones on which colleges are judged in the lighter- touch inspection now being applied in the FE sector (the other two principles are high quality learning and a quality culture).
Angus College, which had 11,800 learner enrolments last session, has appointed a student engagement officer, Katie Anderson, and a student engagement mentor, Tina McGregor. The inspectors found they "successfully promote the learner voice across the college and in curriculum areas". Their work was pronounced "sector leading and innovative".
The report adds: "Learners have very good opportunities to influence the quality of their experience and most learners participate very enthusiastically in activities which enhance their own learning.
"Very positive and mutually respectful relationships between staff and learners result in learners being comfortable and sufficiently confident to raise issues about their learning and teaching.
Mr Burt pays tribute to his student officers for bringing about such a fundamental change so quickly - they have only been in post since September. Among a range of activities, they have "enthusiastically reborn" the student representative council, helped road-test online learning materials, provided "buddy translator" services for students whose first language is not English and run a speed-dating event.
Ms McGregor says: "What we aim to do is encourage dialogue between learner and tutor. I believe that has led to the power relationship in class being deconstructed, so that it's an equal partnership in which students are no longer the silent party but co-creators of their own learning."
Among the changes which followed student representation under the college's "You said . We did" policy were: dropping a unit in the SkillZone to make the workload less heavy, changing the timetable in an HNC administration and IT course, building core skills into a communication course, later opening of the library, allowing mobile phones on silent for hospitality students in the evening restaurant service, retaining drystone dyking in the managing environmental resources course.
Ms McGregor underlines the importance of a "learner engagement toolkit" to which all college staff and students have access in order to provide feedback on learning.
The bottom line for any college with such initiatives is whether they make any difference to student achievement and retention. Ms McGregor is in no doubt: "Engaging more with our students is making an impact: they want to learn and they want to stay."
The HMIE report takes the same view. "Learners are progressing well in almost all subject areas and most are attaining qualifications . Increasingly, they are also developing the ability to manage and evaluate their own learning."
Ms Anderson, who came from a job in community education where capacity- building was part of her role, echoes this and points to growing student confidence as a direct result of what she describes as the college's "open door and open ear policy". She adds: "Before, initiative was just a word to many students - now they know what it means and they are heavily involved in so many different things. It's about genuine engagement, not a get-together for a moan once a month."