A tight belt makes travel hard, if not impossible

Vital international visits for college staff have been grounded, but when they do start again, what will we say?

Before austerity, a little of my working time was spent organising international visits for college staff. We visited colleges, engaged with their staff, presented at conferences and told the story of Scotland's college sector. Our audiences were impressed at our progress and our achievements; many were kind enough to say that we were ahead of the game. We also learned much.

There will be a post-austerity time when the aftershocks of reform will have dampened to an occasional rumble. I trust such visits will be resurrected at some time in the future, given the significant impact on the professional development of participants, and I have been trying to envisage what international audiences might be told as we pick up the narrative of our sector on any future visit.

As part of the context, we would tell them about funding cuts. They will nod in recognition - austerity is a global phenomenon. We would tell them of the impact upon our aspirations for a system of lifelong learning. More nods.

We would tell them of structural reform and the pace at which it was achieved. Our audience will now be paying greater attention - everyone likes a drama. However, that attention will not be retained for long. We would probably comment that we had done as much as we could with those old structures. We would claim with justification that we exceeded expectations. Despite this, persistent challenges remained and fresh energy was needed - new structures were required and political intervention was necessary.

The prevailing view of our audience will be that we had too many colleges anyway and they will wonder why it took us so long to reform.

We would need to move into the substance of the presentation - the leadership challenges and the differences that the reform processes made. There, the script remains unwritten. What sense will we have made of the current turmoil and the many local issues being tackled?

My hope is that two main themes emerge as a result of the reform we are experiencing: coherence and innovation.

Common characteristics of many mature college systems is the lack of understanding on their purpose and their poor status in the communities they serve. These characteristics are related.

It was not always the case. Colleges were strongly associated with traditional craft skills within a narrow qualifications band. Then the workplace became more complex and the demands upon the system became more sophisticated. Colleges were responsive to that changing context and themselves became more complex. Real life entered the system.

With that increasing sophistication, the college system became less easy to understand. Incoherent some might say. "Nobody understands us" was a common cry from within the sector. What should have been a challenge became a fact of college life.

Internal coherence is certainly a dominant theme at the moment for colleges within regions. The checklists are there - employee terms and conditions, policy arrangements, responsibilities, accountabilities, learner engagement ... These will be vital reference points for those making sense of this new place. If only that were all that would be necessary.

It is a reasonable expectation that a learner experience in one part of the regioncollege is of equal standard to anywhere else. And that standard should be a high one. A poor learner experience in one part of the region will impact upon reputations throughout. The pre-reform, corporate habit of critical mutterings about what happens in neighbouring institutions will no longer be acceptable. Internal coherence means articulation of expected behaviours and there will be challenges in enforcement.

Arrangements will need to make sense to the communities that the new institutions will serve. The brand will be key but not just superficially so - it will need to have substance and meaning; it will reflect the experiences of those who engage. That process needs to be managed.

Nationally, the government has craved coherence from the college sector. A single voice has been high on Michael Russell's wish list. And it has probably been high on the list of all who have had business with colleges at a national level. When it works, it is powerful and effective and Scotland benefits. And because it worked on occasion, it was assumed to work constantly. It didn't. Diversity came across as confusion - and who wants to fund confusion?

We would wish to report to that international audience that the new arrangements make sense to those who work within them, to those in partnership with them and to those served by them.

The second theme on which we might be able to report to our audience is of a new spirit of innovation that entered the system.

It would be good to say that new structures brought fresh talent, perspectives and resolve; that scale brought greater opportunity to target resources; that partner contributions were easier to secure; that resource-heavy aspects of provision such as ICT were making a greater impact on the learner experience; that a certain defensiveness had gone and renewed energy was being put into enhancing the learner experience; and that innovation had become an expectation of all staff.

If we can report that we have achieved greater coherence as a system and that a wave of innovation had injected new life into college work, we will have achieved much. I should like them to say "you are ahead of the game", but that is a little way off.

John McCann is an educational consultant and former director at Scotland's Colleges.

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