It’s time for Scottish FE’s moment in the sun

12th February 2016 at 00:00

Earlier this week, my home region in Germany was hit by some dismaying news. A storm was due – with consequences for February’s festivities.

For those of you who were unaware of this, this week was supposed to be the wild finale of what we call “the Fifth Season”: Karneval. Essentially, every year on the Monday before Ash Wednesday, madness ensues. People dress up as cowboys, nurses, celebrities or whatever else takes their fancy.

In numerous cities, thousands of people line the streets for parades of hundreds of decorated wagons. People consume serious amounts of alcohol – mostly, it seems to me, to ensure the health of the German beer industry and to cause a spike in the birth rate for November.

But this year, because of Storm Rusica, wigs, red noses and plastic handcuffs had to be put back in their respective boxes a few days early as a number of towns and cities were forced to cancel their Monday parades.

What this story teaches us is that sometimes, things just don’t go to plan. Arguably, the Scottish college sector has had its fair share of stuff not going as planned over the past year or so. And just as people in Düsseldorf and Mainz could see the storm clouds on the horizon, much of this bad news could (or should) have been predicted. The most recent example of this was the news last week that the EIS-FELA union, which represents college lecturers, would now be balloting its members on industrial action over pay.

In its statement, EIS-FELA says that the umbrella body Colleges Scotland intends to “impose a pay award on college lecturers”. This, it argues, is the “latest example of bad faith from a management side” that has “failed to enter into meaningful discussions on pay equality across the sector”.

Colleges Scotland was quick to react, with chief executive Shona Struthers stating that the “recommendation to award the pay rise was not taken lightly and was taken with the best financial interests of the sector in mind”.

In fact, I am almost certain that all sides entered the pay negotiations a year ago with the best of intentions. But, with no cash injection for the sector in sight, it has been clear for some time that no obvious solution was going to present itself. Strike action in the Scottish FE sector has long seemed inevitable – now, it seems, more so than ever.

And that has not been the only bad news story to engulf Scottish FE over the past year. The repercussions of governance failures in Glasgow and the scandal over the severance pay of some former principals will be felt across the sector for a long time to come.

But that cannot be an excuse to lose focus on the good stuff.

The nominees for this year’s TES FE Awards are great examples of the fact that in the midst of all the frenzy and negativity, great teaching and learning can, and is, still being done (see page 14).

It would be naive to think that students haven’t been affected by the changes. But seeing the examples of great practice across the sector – among the shortlisted colleges or on any college visit – should be enough to remind us all that sometimes, there is a bit of rare Scottish sunshine in between the persistent downpours.

And like my friends back in Germany would no doubt testify, those moments when the clouds part are often the best time to party.

Julia Belgutay (@TESScotland)

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