THIS week further education received an unexpected but deserved plaudit.
The first report of Futureskills Scotland on the Scottish Labour Market 2002 states firmly that "the main gains in lifelong learning have been made in further education". Whatever emerges from the inquiry of the enterprise and lifelong learning committee of the Scottish Parliament - and we will not now know this until the end of October - FE will be centre-stage.
Why then is there so much emphasis on "trouble 't mill" in relation to FE colleges? Anyone scanning the recent pages of Scottish newspapers might easily conclude that breakdown is on the way. But if they took the trouble to visit a college in full start-of-session buzz, they would get a very different and much more positive impression.
Some pressures on colleges are very real and unavoidable. The very success which Futureskills Scotland acknowledges has a price. The massive increase in enrolments, and modes of study, have needed prodigious efforts in organisation, flexibility and delivery of teaching.
Colleges have absorbed the massive impact of National Qualifications with very little hand-wringing. The breakdown in certification in 2000-2001 was surmounted by a determination not to make a difficult situation worse nor to do anything which would deter the efforts or diminish the achievements of FE students. (England could do with a dose of that sort of professional restraint in sorting out its A-level problems just now.) The pressure on college finances remains acute. Although the new spending plans to 2006 promise a substantial boost in grants for colleges, this will come mainly in the last two years from 2004. This academic year and next, colleges have to manage a standstill in cash terms and another cutback in real terms.
At the same time, the Scottish Further Education Funding Council - urged on by the audit committee of the Scottish Parliament - is pressing boards of management to make an operating surplus its paramount task. That is fair enough in the sense of not spending next year's money this year. But it does not acknowledge the adverse impact cutbacks will have on reward for staff and on choice for students.
Because of the sharp productivity gains in the 1990s, it is now much harder to generate cash savings without adverse impacts on service. Outreach and collaboration with an ever wider range of partners in lifelong learning is important but expensive. Any expectation of quick fixes is illusory. The pressure on finances can be overcome only by painstaking and often painful decisions on the colleges' staffing, portfolio, estates, and facilities.
The difficulties of these tasks deserve public attention and debate. But progress is not helped by the current spate of "hit and hide" allegations - usually aimed at the principal of the college - and the ever-increasing burden of double-checking and intervention by other agencies.
All the colleges have put in place procedures for dealing with grievances, complaints, and public interest disclosures. These are now standard requirements for public bodies. All too often, however, the media leap to name the accused, and some of the regulatory agencies seek to take matters out of the colleges' hands - before the proper processes have been given the chance to do their work.
Greater openness and accountability is expected, and indeed desirable, for FE colleges. Boards of management have to be able to account for decisions, whether of first instance or on appeal, which it takes in difficult cases.
The job becomes impossible, however, if unprofessional - and sometimes mischievous - claims are made about matters which are still sub judice.
Local negotiation of pay and conditions by each college sets the FE sector apart from schools and universities in Scotland and, to some degree, FE in England and Wales. This does not mean that "anything goes". Further education is a public service and it has maintained a public service ethos and standards.
Employment relations are subject to the whole range of EU and domestic legislation. Colleges discuss and share good practice and Association of Scottish Colleges and the Scottish Trades Union Congress are exploring ways to build on the initial pilot of "family friendly policies" in five colleges to other aspects of new legislation and good practice.
The strength of FE has always been its "community" - both in the narrow sense of the college community of management, staff, and students and the wider sense of being a "community college" serving employers and many other local partners. It is time for some of those who initiate "tick box" regulation, or who demand ram-raid investigations, to think a little harder and longer about whether their interventions help the college community and the interests of students.
Tom Kelly is chief officer of the Association of Scottish Colleges.