Zen and the art of soap studies

25th February 2005 at 00:00
John McCann finds more than a philosophic link between Buddhism, the Archers and Scotland's colleges

These are exciting times at the Scottish Further Education Unit, the strategic development agency for Scotland's colleges. We have come through a restructuring, new folks are in post and exerting their influence, and independent evaluators are reporting high levels of satisfaction in the sector with our services. We seem to be getting there.

Part of getting there is to exploit the opportunity we have of the links across the specialist areas we cover. The work we do in the equalities areas should and does inform the work we do in e-learning; the work we do in e-learning should and does influence the work we do in support of the learning process; the work we do in the learning process should and does influence the work we do in quality; and so on.

This is hard work for us all - working in well-defined compartments has attractions in simplicity, clarity of responsibilities and ease of management processes. However, just because it is simple doesn't mean to say it is right, and we have decided that it will be through working better together internally that we shall better meet the needs of Scotland's colleges. Connectedness is our theme.

This approach was described by a colleague as related to Buddhist approaches to life. I have no idea. I tried to check it out in my Teach Yourself Philosophy book, without success. I did pursue it through various conversations and there would seem to be an analogy derived from the connectedness of it all, with actions influenced by some understanding of these connections. But while Buddhists might advise profound processes of individual reflection to gain enlightenment, funding mechanisms do not.

However, given that I still regard Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as one of the best books ever written on "quality", I shall not give up seeking the necessary enlightenment that will help me understand the world I have chosen to operate in. Being connected seems to be at the core.

I was meditating on the matter of connectivity during a recent omnibus edition of The Archers - that never-ending radio soap opera of life in Ambridge at the heart of rural England.

Now, not a lot of people know this, but I have been a "Brain of Ambridge".

I won this title at the Royal Highland Show in 1992 with a little help whispered by Clarrie Grundy (I am shivering at the recollection of it all).

My immediate family have not encouraged dissemination of this achievement and I have not, as yet, included it in my curriculum vitae. But perhaps, in the "connectedness of it all", it might have a place.

The FE content in the Archers has been provided by Borchester College. It was in Borchester College that Pat Archer (a closet Buddhist?) sought to broaden her horizons, much to the discomfort of her warm-beer-and-the-sound-of-leather-on-willow husband Tony.

Elizabeth Archer ended up at Borchester College with the encouragement of her school, where she was becoming more than a little problematic. She is a soap opera testament to the relationship between attendance and achievement - neither really happened.

Tom (or was it John?) Archer undertook an NQ at Borchester College on a flexible programme of study which balanced work on the farm with college-based activity and he is exhibiting all the entrepreneurial skills which soap opera Britain needs.

Young Roy sorted out his racist tendencies there. More recently, Fallon Rogers has been undertaking a course to develop her skills and understanding of the world of music and doing very well by the sounds of it.

Borchester College is connected to its community through a number of life-altering threads. Its reputation now faces a severe test. Brian Aldridge's daughter, Alice, is considering going on to college for further study rather than stay on at her independent school.

For those who need to be told these things, Brian would be regarded as very traditional in his approach to soap opera life - runs the estate on firm business lines, indulges in occasional philandering with serious consequences, expects his dinner on the table with the wine at the right temperature, is capable of surprising thoughtfulness; that sort of thing.

So Brian finds it difficult to deal with the notion of his daughter going to college, regarding such a move as the ultimate signal of desperate failure. His views will be familiar to those faced by staff of Scotland's colleges.

Meantime in the conversations around this story line, other views have been expressed. There are references to the availability of a broader curriculum; suggestions of change - "it used to be called Borchester Tech then"; and an adult learning ethos which might be appealing to a young person who feels she has outgrown school.

The informed view is represented and tensions are building. Performance indicators, I feel, are looming. It connects to real life.

Me, I'm rooting for Alice. I hope the decision she eventually makes will be a positive one, based on sound knowledge of provision, together with as much a view of life plans as you could expect any young person to have. I hope she makes the right connections. We're finding at the SFEU that connections, connectedness and connectivity are an important aspect of doing the job and improving our support to Scotland's colleges.

We are finding also it is hard, harder than anyone might think and probably harder than it should be. In level of difficulty, it might almost be as hard as writing an article connecting Buddhism, The Archers and Scotland's colleges.

As with many things in the further education sector, it is surprising what can be done.

John McCann is depute chief executive of the Scottish Further Education Unit.

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