‘There’s a lot more to be done. Mergers are hard’

16th October 2015 at 00:00
Edinburgh College’s principal shares pride at staff’s dedication

Staff at the cash-strapped Edinburgh College have a “palpable” commitment to providing the best offer to students despite financial difficulties, its new principal has told TESS.

Speaking after just over 100 days in post, Annette Bruton admitted that the merger process continued to be challenging, particularly as it had coincided with severe budget cuts. “There is a lot still to be done. Mergers are hard,” she said.

Cuts to all budgets had already been made, she said, adding that the college was close to the point where it could not continue salami-slicing. “We are going to have to be a bit more innovative,” the principal said.

Ms Bruton added that she intended to involve staff in making decisions about the college’s future, and stressed it was important that they and the students knew what its budget was being spent on.

She made her comments as members of the EIS-FELA union at the college embarked on industrial action short of a strike over grievances with management. Last year, prior to Ms Bruton’s appointment, staff at the college went on strike over proposed changes to their terms and conditions. Also in 2014, it was reported that the college was facing a £1.7 million deficit, and had lost 7.5 per cent of its provision and 1,000 full-time places in three years.

Edinburgh College announced the appointment of Ms Bruton in February. She replaced interim principal Elaine McMahon, who was brought in after the departure of Mandy Exley, who had embarked on the merger.

The college was established in 2012 by the merger of Stevenson College, Telford College and Jewel and Esk College.

‘Difficult challenge’

The college had now taken stock, Ms Bruton said, and the next “difficult” challenge was to get everyone pulling in the same direction.

The principal told TESS that the “one-stop-shop” created by the merger was likely to benefit students. “I think they are going to be better served, because they will see a coherent offer,” she said. But she added that it was vital to be as inclusive as possible: “If we turn someone away, where do they go? I am mindful of that.”

The Scottish college sector was still facing “real financial difficulties”, Ms Bruton explained. “That is not new, but it feels hard for the sector, particularly because some of the savings have been as a result of merger, so that exacerbates the sense of loss.

“It is very difficult to think about how we will reshape the sector with the significant reduction in government resources, because we want to keep as many students and staff as we can.”

Born in East Lothian, Ms Bruton started her career as a geography teacher, before joining the Inspectorate of Education. In 2009, she became director of education at Aberdeen City Council, moving on to be chief executive of the Care Inspectorate. Having spent almost her entire life in education, her new post had been an “unmissable opportunity”, she said.

Ms Bruton added: “I know this community in education and social terms, and because of the merger of the three colleges we have created something really different from what was there before.”

She had been particularly struck by how hard-working the staff were, she said. “You expect this, but you don’t always find it,” she added, saying that the staff’s commitment to providing the best offer to students was “palpable”.

The college was building on its work with schools, Ms Bruton added, in line with government priorities to develop partnerships with secondary schools to allow young people to combine academic and vocational training.

This year for the first time, Edinburgh College will publish its course prospectus early, to ensure that guidance teachers have it at their disposal. The decision was also about creating “parity of esteem” with universities: “Not to compete with universities, but to make sure that everyone is equal and making that decision at the same time,” Ms Bruton.

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