Ten steps to heaven for the next ten years

20th January 2006 at 00:00
I am writing this in much more conducive surroundings than normal - pen in one hand, a dram of Glenlivet in the other and "the silvery Tay" in view from my window. Yes, it's the only time of the year colleges actually close and principals work from their home bases.

It's also when we reflect on past glories (Wembley 1967), consider our current circumstances (lack of old-fashioned wingers) and plan novel resolutions (maybe I won't renew my season ticket to East End Park).

Forcing myself into college mode, two current responsibilities make me ponder times past and times to come.

The first of these is the planning of celebrations in 2006 to mark the 50th anniversary of Angus College. The second is my chairmanship of "the difference colleges make" workstream of the Review of Scotland's Colleges.

The former is an excellent opportunity to delve into the socioeconomic history of the local Angus area. The original college was established in a tenement flat in Arbroath and consisted of one principal, two lecturers and two classrooms - catering solely for mechanical and production engineering students. The only heating was open coal fires, and students had to stoke these in the winter months.

College regulations for students were crystal clear: to be regular and punctual in their attendance; to apply themselves to the work of the course; and to behave as reasonable and civilised adults.

There is every truth in the rumour that the current one principal and 380 staff would like these rules to apply to the current 9,000 students.

My second responsibility is also proving to be a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the impressive journey that Scotland's colleges have made since incorporation in 1993.

Scotland's 43 colleges operate from more than 4,000 sites, had 467,173 student enrolments and employed 21,779 staff in 2003-04. Between 2000 and 2004, all colleges were reviewed by the HMIE and some 86 per cent of grades were very good or good. Overall satisfaction with the quality of the college learning experience expressed by students stood at 94 per cent.

This pen picture suggests that Scotland's colleges are professional, capable, responsive, accessible and central to both economic development and inclusion agendas.

The key word to me which epitomises the sector in 2006 is "confident". In this spirit, I suggest 10 key resolutions for us as we plan ahead for the next 10 years.

1 Funded growth. The sector must campaign for growth funding to supply unmet demand and to tackle new national initiatives, especially those designed to raise the life chances of the 20 per cent most deprived in Scotland and to improve public health.

2 Public-sector modernisation. The college sector should aim to be an outstanding example of this. Our watchwords should include efficient and agile delivery, empowered locally but co-ordinated nationally, since we are maximisers of public value.

3 Landscape changers. We should be increasingly open to sectoral discussion on the number of colleges and how they are organised and configured.

4 Colleges as a career. Most staff in colleges (including principals) enter our profession by accident and a real challenge will be to establish the sector as a first choice career with development pathways for academic, support and para-academic staff.

5 Development of new leaders. High energy, optimistic thinkers with financial acumen and entrepreneurial tendencies are required. But, increasingly, this will be tempered with the need for the "patience of a saint" - the patience to build value-adding, collaborative partnerships and to engage fully with all staff on organisational values, mission and purpose.

6 Influencing policy. Working with both the Scottish Executive and Scottish Further Education Funding Council, I have come to the conclusion that "seeing is believing" and that we must show off our college, staff and student achievements. A more intense way of achieving this in the future will be to encourage a programme of mutually beneficial secondments as part of joint career development programmes.

7 The Scotland perspective. Increasingly all college staff should see themselves as working for both a local college, with regional alliances, and the flagship brand of Scotland's Colleges. Our collective asset base is impressive, our combined lobbying is influential and we will all watch with interest the emergence of new developments such as Scotland's Colleges International.

8 The demographic opportunity. Let's lose words like time bomb and other doom-laden portents. We are the sector which will repeatedly re-skill people throughout their longer working lives.

9 No mission drift. We may now have a joint funding council for the university and college sectors in Scotland, but let's not over-egg the areas of similarity. Scotland's colleges are already better placed to meet the priority national needs of skills development and confidence-building, especially in harder to reach areas of deprivation.

10 The final transformation - "Cinderella to Belle of the Ball". Let's lose, once and for all, the tired Cinderella syndrome.

Scotland's colleges have received significant increases in public funding, which we have supplemented with our usual entrepreneurial flair. New buildings are arising, aspirations are higher and confidence is in the air.

Let's keep it there.

John Burt is principal of Angus College.

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