You've got the stage, show what you can do

1st July 2005 at 01:00
There has been a bit of press coverage recently about the future of further education in Scotland. It's all relative, of course, and the amount of space generated pales into insignificance in comparison to questions of real national importance, like who's going to win Big Brother. However, the fact that the articles appeared at all, and that they related to the role and impact of the sector, reflects a growing recognition of our importance.

The articles referred to the review of Scotland's colleges announced by the former Deputy First Minister at the recent Association of Scottish Colleges conference. Not all of the press comment was positive, with speculation that the review was likely to result in a reduction in the number of colleges, and warnings that we are entering into a period of uncertainty and change exacerbated by the unknown impact of the merger of the higher and FE funding councils.

So what's new? At the interview for my first job as a lecturer (which I suddenly realise was nearly 30 years ago), my soon-to-be head of department advised me to think carefully about taking the job as FE was entering a period of uncertainty and change. I'm still waiting to emerge from it.

The interesting question to ask is: "Why is constant change the only certainty?" One answer is that it's because not only do we play a pivotal role in society and the economy, we also play it rather well. In short, colleges are effective agents of change, supporting and enabling major curriculum initiatives in our own and other sectors, driving changes in the national economy and in social policy.

This is in addition to our undoubted success in taking forward the lifelong learning agenda. Colleges embrace everyone - from pupils to pensioners, with or without qualifications, with or without previous experience and often without the initial confidence or motivation to succeed.

At a micro level, colleges are valued by their communities as effective, supportive and enabling organisations which meet the aspirations and needs of individuals and organisations.

Increasingly we, and others, are aware of the importance of our national role, and of our collective impact at a macro level. It's reflected in the increasingly effective ways in which Scotland's colleges are working together. The reorganisation of the principals' forum; a strengthened representative role for the ASC; the rebranding of the FE sector as "Scotland's colleges"; the sector's programme of strategic engagement with key stakeholders; and the publication of Scotland is Changing highlighting our collective impact - all confirm our maturity as a sector.

The review presents an opportunity for us to achieve the recognition and secure the future and the resources to reflect the key contribution Scotland's colleges make to the nation.

The process will focus on four work streams - accountability and governance, staff and resources, the FE contribution to learners, the economy and society and the sector's long-term role. In every area, we have much to be proud of and achievements to build upon and develop.

The review may seem like another challenge in a period of uncertainty and change, but this is one of those occasions when we need to have the confidence to steer the agenda.

I am reminded of the story of the American aircraft carrier Supreme, which was undertaking exercises off the Canadian coast when a "maritime object" was spotted on the radar directly in its path. The signal went out:

"Unknown maritime object. This is the USS Supreme. You are directly in our path and we require you to change course immediately."

Back came the reply: "This is the Canadian Coastguard. We are in Canadian waters and will not move. Suggest you change course."

To which the Americans responded: "Canadian Coastguard. Negative. This is the USS Supreme, a battle-ready aircraft carrier with a task force consisting of two destroyers, three frigates and support vessels. We will not change course. If you refuse to move, we will be forced to take prejudicial action against you."

Which elicited a final reply: "USS Supreme, we are a lighthouse. It's your call."

What is heading our way may seem, to an extent, threatening. But we have strong foundations and should have the confidence in ourselves to work with our stakeholders and the Scottish Executive to use the review to shape our future direction.

FE has often been called the Cinderella sector, responsible for a lot of good work, but operating mainly in the background. For once, the spotlight will be very firmly on us and it's time to take centre stage. We have already achieved a great deal. Now it's time to show what we really can do.

Tony Jakimciw is principal of Dumfries and Galloway College and chairman of the FE principals' forum.

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