Two carriages short on the 8.28 to Brunstane

17th September 2004 at 01:00
I frequently travel on the Edinburgh Crossrail services from Livingston North to Brunstane, a service just 200 metres from my desk and opened for me by Iain Gray (remember him?) only a few weeks after I became principal.

The timing of the trains is somewhat erratic and they are frequently heavily overcrowded.

You can be standing on an overcrowded platform when a "short" train (two carriages) appears and is only able to take three-quarters of those on the platform, leaving the rest behind. Even worse, at the next station (Uphall) the platform is full of eager commuters but the doors remain shut, unable to admit anyone. They are told to wait for the next train.

I get to work to be greeted by a letter from one of the 12 MSPs in my college's catchment area. Another constituent (the seventh) has complained that his son, who wants to be an electrician like his dad, can't get into college - there are no places left and we have a waiting list. Maybe he can get a place on the 20:06.

With participation running at 25 per cent below the national average and deteriorating at 5 per cent a year due mainly to the 20 houses completed a week within 90 per cent of our catchment area, we too must leave 25 per cent on the platform.

Welcome then to the lucky few admitted to further education in the Lothians and to the 8:28am from Livingston North.

* Stop press - The Scottish Executive has given pound;25 million for bigger trains and extended platforms.

The rhythm method

Passing Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh at the height of the Festival, I pause to watch the drumming ensemble. Playing buckets, bricks, coconuts and dustbins, they are coming from 20 different directions and 20 local tempos, but suddenly they turn from different directions, marching and drumming in perfect unison.

The effect is entrancing, captivating people; heads are turned, they look to see what has happened and stand swaying with the infectious beat.

The most enthusiastic and persistent Fringe leafleter would struggle to sell tickets to a principals' forum - although we may get a venue if billed as an especially avant-garde piece of Chekovesque theatre.

However, more and more the principals' forum is reaching consensus (even on difficult issues) and even unanimity (four times) on a range of strategic issues. The tempo is increasing when we all drum together, heads turn and we make sweet music. I could dance to that.

Mum's the word

Colleges don't just talk the talk of social inclusion, we deliver it by the skip load. No opportunity can or should be missed to say that Scottish further education does do what it is asked and does it well. Social inclusion, literacy, community outreach, more students, statutory requirements, providing qualifications, liaison with employers and impacting on real people's lives.

I am very proud of that achievement. At an event in Prestonpans, East Lothian, I met three women, each with a child in tow. They are the mother, her daughter and her granddaughter - like them, I have never been very good with arithmetic.

All three had just completed one of our outreach courses; the eldest one had just started her very first job - using her new-found skills. The youngest starts college in a few weeks - if there are any places left. They beamed, chatted, smiled, and revealed far too much about their personal lives as they explained to me the barriers they had overcome.

They were most insistent that I listened when they "telled" me how brilliant Bob and Linda (my staff) were. All principals have these tales to tell. I am just glad I had the opportunity to share it with you.

In from the fringe

The Edinburgh Fringe 2004 has been a great success with more than 1 million tickets sold and the streets thronged with festival-goers. I noted an apology that 5 per cent of performances were in venues unsuitable or without access for those with mobility problems and that a further 11 per cent of performances were in venues where access was difficult.

Help, advice and even special arrangements were all offered, a triumph for disability discrimination legislation, as this was a considerable reduction on previous years.

Shame that 30 per cent of lectures at my Eskbank campus are not accessible; but, never mind, once the funding council has refused my business case for a rebuild because it is based on growth, I will have a platform to make a provision in the accounts for the fines - disability discrimination accounting?

Write stuff

There are many unsung heroes in the FE works and I would like to sing the praises of all those who work supporting literacy and dyslexia.

These are a group of especially dedicated individuals who always go the whole or extra mile. They help dyslexics fight, hide, bully, ignore and cope with their barriers (is it an affliction or a gift? - the jury is still out); some of the most successful and gifted in our society cope with dyslexia.

One of those who helps others is John Casey - John if you are out there, remember helping me! Hey John, I've just published a piece in a national publication!

Howard McKenzie is principal of Jewel and Esk Valley College.

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