Tartan policies are not enough

23rd December 2005 at 00:00
Jim Donaldson looks at what lessons Scotland needs to take on board from developments south of the border

The statement that jumped out from Tom Kelly's article ("Fortunately, Foster is not a recipe for Scotland," December 2) is that "not only do we now have a single Scottish Funding Council for colleges and universities but we had already embarked on our own review of Scotland's colleges". But there are other comments in the article which merit response.

One thing we can be certain about is that the Government will not create a single funding council for universities and colleges in England. The facts speak for themselves. The Learning and Skills Council, which has responsibility for funding further education, work-based learning, sixth forms in schools and adult and community learning, is already the largest quango in England.

For 2005-06, it has a budget of pound;9 billion, rising to pound;10.4 billion in 2006-07. Add in the Higher Education Funding Council's budget of pound;6.3 billion in 2005-06, and it quickly becomes clear that no sane Government would ever allocate that level of resource to a single organisation. Put another way, the amount that would require to be allocated to a single funding council in England equates to roughly half the Scottish Executive's grant from the exchequer.

Comparisons are also made in the article between the review undertaken by Sir Anrew Foster and the review of Scotland's Colleges (Rosco). It is claimed that Rosco will "give us a chance to refocus purpose and strategy in a less frenetic way". I would hesitate before describing Foster as "frenetic". In fact, Sir Andrew was appointed chair of the review in November 2004, following his work leading the FE bureaucracy review group the previous year.

Since the bureaucracy review group had addressed a number of important management themes, such as accountability, the inspection regime, funding flows and management information, it was perhaps understandable that Charles Clarke, the then Secretary of State for Education and Skills, would ask him to advise on the key strategic issues, challenges and opportunities facing FE over the next five to 10 years.

My understanding of the review of Scotland's Colleges, gleaned from the Executive's news release issued in June, is that it is much more narrowly focused than Foster. Rather than examining the big picture, it will review how colleges are governed, encompassing issues such as the appointment of board members along with their guidance, induction and development, as well as ministers' powers to intervene in cases of poor governance. There is no reference to the review placing centre-stage the contribution of Scotland's Colleges to the economy.

Foster established an advisory group to advise on the key issues. As one might expect, membership was drawn from the leaders of the very best performing colleges, the school and university sectors, industry and unions.

Rosco will be conducted by the Executive and the question that must be asked is whether it is the right body to conduct the review? Interestingly, some in education and training circles harbour the suspicion that ministers resort to consultations and reviews because they can then delay making decisions.

Differences in the structures of further and higher education between Scotland and England are quite properly alluded to in Tom Kelly's article.

But the existence and success of "hybrid" sixth-form colleges in England, and their potential for tackling some of the post-16 problems facing Scotland, should not be dismissed out of hand. They may even represent a solution to some of the low levels of post-16 achievement in some of Scotland's poorly performing local authority secondary schools.

Sixth-form colleges have proved to be successful institutions which demonstrate high and rising retention and achievement rates, better meet the needs of individual students in terms of curriculum choice and offer coherence in the design of learning programmes, teaching and support activities.

They have a proven track record in meeting the needs of a wide variety of 16-18 learners, and the opportunities for change and investment arising from their establishment could result in improved effectiveness and efficiency, a double benefit in terms of value for money for cash-strapped local authorities.

Finally, I am not convinced that the old days of the "Scottification" of England's initiatives have gone. Two very recent examples would illustrate my point well. First, we are led to believe that Scottish Enterprise is giving serious consideration to dismantling the existing structure of local enterprise companies (their equivalents were abolished in England in 2001).

Second, a debate has quite properly commenced on whether existing Scottish Enterprise resource allocations in support of skills development in colleges should in future be allocated by the funding council (education and skills budgets in England have been combined for the past four years).

While trusting your institutions and delivering sufficient funding to secure a broad diversity of provision is one thing, the willingness to look at, consider and, where appropriate, adopt good practice from other systems is another.

Scotland has recently been described as "the best small country in the world". Its size undoubtedly confers advantages in the way in which we structure and manage our publicly funded organisations. But we should not conclude that the Scottish way of approaching things is the only way.

Perhaps a useful starting point in the review of Scotland's Colleges would have been independent membership and evaluation (at least) of alternative post-16 delivery structures. Who knows, alternative approaches to the solution of issues such as low levels of participation, retention and achievement, which characterise some of post-16 school education in Scotland, might lead to qualitative improvement in the system overall.

Jim Donaldson, a former member of the inspectorate in Scotland, was chief inspector of the Further Education Funding Council for England (1996-2001) and is now a consultant.

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