What have colleges done for Scotland? Lots, actually

23rd December 2011 at 00:00
The sector's statistics suggest success, which should lead us to question the Government's planned overhaul

The Scottish Government has set out its plans for a major re- organisation of the tertiary sector, ostensibly with the aim of creating better-qualified graduates and young people. The message is that many courses offered by universities and colleges have served neither workforce nor employers well.

In support of this view, the Government states that 70 per cent of students leaving FE colleges gain employment, 55 per cent of attendees at college are women and 25 per cent of college enrolments are from Scotland's most deprived areas. But far from supporting the Government's argument, these statistics speak success.

They show that colleges have had an indisputable impact on what and how people learn, on employment rates and on economic growth in Scotland - and that training and courses on offer are not too wide of the mark in relation to industry needs. They also show that the consultative, highly democratic and responsive style of FE in Scotland has gone a long way to engaging learners and motivating them towards success. Through consistent and careful self-evaluation, it has attained high standards of learning and teaching.

What the Government does not appear to recognise or value sufficiently is where, in our education system, the FE sector has positioned itself and how far it has travelled since the early Nineties. Freed from the strict rule of local authorities, colleges have transformed into flexible enterprises, fleet of foot in relation to changing policy and demography. Not only have they incorporated the demands of technological changes in industry into their programmes, they are also a reliable source of a core education as a basis for vocational preparation for a diverse population, and an accessible and flexible means of gaining qualifications, HNDs and degrees.

The voices in support of the sector as a bridge into employment and further learning for thousands of Scots are eloquent and strident. Not only have Scottish colleges made a unique contribution to local communities and their regeneration, they have confronted the persistent problem of adult literacy that has conferred developing-country status on Scotland and placed us at an economic disadvantage.

For these students, and for others failed by the school system, FE in Scotland has designed learning maps that are attuned to their needs, tackling head-on the issue of "drop out" and disaffection from schools, using assessment protocols which pick up where exactly learners are and what they require to move forward, academically and personally. Some colleges have developed nationally-recognised expertise for learners with particular needs.

The major debate in Scottish FE has been about pedagogy and how to create optimum learning. Whether this can be said of other sectors is for others to judge. Better matching of curriculum content between colleges and universities is highly desirable, but what would serve learners more appropriately as they progress into HE would be collaboration and consensus between colleges and universities on good teaching and continuity.

Universities may well have something to learn from their FE colleagues; greater focus, monitoring and accountability in relation to pedagogies which engage would ensure that learners make appropriate degree choices and gain not just a qualification, but an education that prepares them better for a competitive job market. This is not to undervalue the international standing of UK research, but the main task at hand is employment and economic recovery.

The Government argument is neither well made nor properly informed. Its proposals for improvement and regionalisation undermine Scottish FE and its role in the system; they presuppose a stable economy and a reliable employment environment, none of which is true. International economic uncertainty makes local industry highly volatile.

The local status quo is not a stable platform on which to build a cohesive, future-proof curriculum. An education for work for global and societal needs now and in future must be based on a more aspirational and far-sighted view that encourages drive, ambition and enterprise; pride and motivation towards excellence; flexibility and a nimble mind.

Regionalised colleges will be unwieldy to administer, and highly problematic in relation to growth and improvement. Partnership with other colleges, and other sectors, will become an administrative exercise with change impossible to make real or monitor. That human dynamic, concerted energy, unity of direction and focus which comes from disparate groups of people learning together, and is characteristic of the excellent colleges, will be lost in amorphous merging and gatherings of bland mediocrity.

Some colleges have failed to meet the needs and expectations of learners and stakeholders. To continue to maintain them is a drain on resources. So, let us redraw the map of Scottish colleges to include and fund only the strongest and most expert, who will collaborate closely on curriculum matters, share services where practical but retain their unique character and contribution to learners first and to the local and national community.

Colleges have developed their skills in assessing and auditing not only their own performance, but that of other colleges. They are now well able - assisted by radical and active governance - to lead that process, securing agreements from students, employers and other partners on the measures of success, the curriculum and how to teach engagingly.

The task of gathering evidence and being able to demonstrate success should fall to each college consortium, which would itself commission regular audit and review from government specialists, HMI and others, on professional matters, on teaching and learning and classroom practice. It is this empowerment and validation of the work of Scottish FE which we now need more than ever.

Anne Pia, educational consultant, is a former HMI and founder of the company LearningVoices UK.

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