the Scottish colleges sector has recently undergone a complicated reform programme, causing uncertainty and upheaval that all are now keen to put behind them. But, as England becomes engulfed in a similar shake-up, a leading education figure is calling on Scotland to share the lessons it has learned.
Dame Ruth Silver told TESS that Scottish colleges could save their counterparts in England “pain” by exchanging information about what they went through.
Dame Ruth, president of the Further Education Trust for Leadership and author of the Scottish government’s report on widening access, said that the “suffering” caused by the merger process was beginning to ease in Scotland.
“What an example we would be, telling each other what does and does not work,” she said. “The missing voice of how to do it [mergers] is our own people. Scotland has been there before.
“Scotland has shown through all the pain and difficulty how collaboration can be approached and developed. More than anything else, it has shown that it takes time. I would make the claim that some professional staff in Scotland have learned how to change in changing times.”
Selling ‘something special’
Sharing experiences was not just important for current leaders, but also for leaders of the future, said Dame Ruth, who worked on the Glasgow colleges’ post-merger curriculum review and was previously a principal of Lewisham College in London.
“The leaders-in-waiting must pay attention,” she urged. “They have to make sure they are not duplicating provision and [colleges] all have their unique selling points. They should all offer a fair amount of the same, as well as something that is special about them.”
While there had been dialogue between the sectors in both nations in the past, this had become less frequent in recent years, she said. “I remember a time when principals from Scotland would come to sector conferences in England, and so on. In change of this scale [fundamental FE reform], people have become very introverted.”
In the FE section of this week’s edition of TES in England, Dame Ruth urges college leaders to re-engage in cross-border dialogue. She says: “Challenging reforms have taken place throughout the FE sector [in Scotland], encouraging new networks and partnerships in service to their local economies and citizens. From what I have witnessed, many are over the teething stages and are beginning to show some real progress and newness in handling the changed policy agenda they are faced with. England’s leaders can learn a great deal from the experiences of cutting-edge leaders across Scotland.”
She adds that innovating for the future does not, and should not, happen in isolation: “I believe that the challenges we face in England have had an early start north of the border. The initial teething phase is settling: they now know a thing or two.”
Ken Thomson, principal of Forth Valley College, told TESS that he supported increased dialogue between the nations. His college was about to sign a memorandum of understanding with a university college elsewhere in the UK to look at collaborative working and the sharing of experiences and CPD.
He said: “There are lessons to be learned from the Scottish experience, and for me, those lessons are about people and culture, and getting the curriculum right for your student community.”
Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, which convenes the UK Council of Colleges – where English colleges meet with their Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh counterparts – said that dialogue was important, but added: “There are, however, different circumstances applying between each of the four nations, not least in terms of the legal status of colleges. In England and Wales, colleges remain fully autonomous institutions but in Northern Ireland, and Scotland they are classified as public bodies.”
Regionalisation in England
The further education sector in England is currently undergoing a fundamental reform programme. Area reviews involving local FE providers and sixth-form colleges, along with other stakeholders are taking place across the country in a bid to introduce a regional approach to FE provision.
The aim, according to the Westminster government, is to establish “a set of institutions that are financially resilient and able to offer high-quality education and training based on the needs of learners and employers within the local area”. The expectation is also that the process will result in fewer, larger colleges – much as regionalisation in Scotland did.
With reviews taking place in stages, regions are progressing towards this goal at varying speeds, although the first mergers between colleges – and in one case between a college and a university – have been announced.
There are currently more than 300 FE colleges in England.