"Hint squad" not "hit squad". That was how John Burt, first head of the the Further Education Development Directorate (FEDD), described its work. The respected principal of Angus College was keen to emphasise that the task was about "college management development rather than fixing management failure".
It took a long time for that perception of the FEDD to gain ground, as it was sent in by its parent body, the Scottish Funding Council, to "fix management failure" at Inverness and James Watt colleges.
Now, seven years to the month when it first "engaged" with a college, Brian Curle, its current head, believes the directorate has "come of age".
Mr Curle, who came to the job from a board of management (Glasgow Metropolitan College) rather than a principalship, agreed that it had a "narrow focus" in the beginning, supporting colleges facing serious financial challenges.
But he suggests there has been a "tremendous metamorphosis". Of the 18 projects under way this year, all 12 colleges involved have invited the FEDD to step over their threshold.
The range of that work illustrates how far the directorate has moved from its origins. It includes giving guidance on curriculum development, estates strategy, health and safety, business development. The directorate has also been called in to develop the role of college boards, from strategic planning to enhancing the skills of board members.
Mr Curle says they use only the highest calibre of people as secondees to send in to colleges seeking support, typically principals, vice-principals and assistant principals. "That's how we build our reputation," he adds.
They have never gone outside the FE sector for expertise.
He suggests there has been a three-way benefit - the college which gets the know-how; the continuing professional development for the "expert"; and the lessons learned by the college lending the expertise.
Mr Curle and his team spend a considerable amount of time briefing the secondees so they understand the issues in the college requesting assistance. "They are made to understand that they could be going into a very sensitive situation for which we have developed a particular cycle of consultation," he says.
The FEDD has no "standing army" of experts, on the basis that colleges want a bespoke solution to their problems. It says it has never had to replace a secondee because of tensions with the receiving college, but it has reinforced his or her presence with another colleague.
In the case of Oatridge and Motherwell colleges, the result was a win-win experience for both. David James, principal at Oatridge, decided to use the expertise within the sector when the college had to resolve some health and safety issues. "Being a small college, we don't always have the resources in-house," he says.
So the directorate sent in Rosina Waterson, health and safety manager at Motherwell. She recalls it as a great learning experience for herself, and the college did not do too badly either: it now has a contract with Oatridge to provide health and safety and occupational health services.
Although the funding council's involvement in the affairs of colleges is no longer prompted by their financial failures, Mr Curle foresees more intensive activity on that front as the recession bites. "We are getting more requests for financial assistance," he says, "not because colleges are in trouble, but because they realise they are facing uncertain financial times ahead. For example, good investment returns have previously been decimated."
In turn, he says, HR requires more support because they have to take charge of cutting staff costs while responding to increased demand for college places from students. Mr Curle foresees a period of very intensive work for FEDD - "so it is just as well we have come of age".
He thinks colleges get a good deal: "It's a free service, and support is not time-limited - the longest period we have spent this year is 60 days supporting one college. We're there as friends, sometimes critical friends, and we're there as peers."
The FEDD relies heavily on the generosity of principals in releasing key staff to ride to the rescue of other colleges.
"We have not encountered any reluctance in this respect," Mr Curle says. "After all, they're helping to deal with issues they might have to face themselves."