We're back and raring to go

As a teenager, I remember reading Edna O'Brien's novel August is a Wicked Month, but I never thought that her evocative title would have quite the resonance it now has for those of us who work in Scotland's colleges.

August is one of those months that rush past in a whirlwind of activity. It is filled with "state of the nation" addresses to staff refreshed by holidays in far-flung parts of the world, punctuated by the organised chaos of enrolment evenings, and flavoured by the steady stream of students attending their induction meetings. For me, August is about renewal and the year-on-year excitement of making a difference to a new intake of learners.

After the slower pace of the summer break, when most staff and students are on leave, August is also the time to change tempo and pick up speed again. You either love it or you dread it, and I am one of those who love it. I guess I need the adrenalin rush.

When I was a lecturer, I loved August because it signalled new beginnings.

I fed off the buzz and energy that goes with a new group of students and the promise of working with them in the coming months and years.

There are not many jobs that offer the variety and challenge of building relationships with a different group of people every 12 months or so.

As a principal, my feelings about August are different but I still look forward to it and regard it as one of the best times in the college year.

However, I don't think I would be alone in saying that I think of the many issues that face my own college and wonder pensively how we will all fare in 2006-07.

Some things we know: there will be an election next May and the next spending review does not look hopeful for the college sector as funding will be tight. There will be the usual challenge of delivering high-quality learning with scarce resources; college places are becoming highly sought after.

The Review of Scotland's Colleges (RoSCo) will report early in 2007 and will recognise the major contribution the colleges make to the economic and public life of Scotland. We already know that for every pound;1 invested in them, Scotland's colleges give pound;3.20 back.

Getting the message across about how valuable we are to Scotland is crucial. Colleges have long been seen as "political", but they don't come as high on the political agenda as they should. As convenor of the Association of Scotland's Colleges (ASC) principals' forum, I see raising the political value of colleges as one of my major tasks in the coming months.

Principals will be working tirelessly to promote their own college and the college sector by lobbying political parties in the run-up to the election.

Together with the ASC, we will be talking to MSPs of all persuasions, telling them the good news stories about colleges and letting them know what we would like the next Scottish Parliament to deliver for our colleges and our students.

Through Scotland's Colleges International (SCI), we will be getting the message across to politicians and stakeholders about what the colleges can do to help develop a global Scotland. Internationalisation, cultural diversity and the enrichment of learning are the focus of SCI. Twenty-nine colleges have signed up to this exciting new initiative. They and the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) have invested in SCI, and it is in all our interests to make it work.

Going back to those halcyon days when I was a lecturer - you must allow me some nostalgia - August was about looking inwards at my own college: new students, new timetable, perhaps new colleagues. Rarely, if ever, did I think about what was happening in the college down the road, let alone in the sector at large.

Now we know that each individual college is further strengthened by a strong and vibrant sector. It is in no one's interests to have colleges struggling to survive, and none of us stands alone. Today's principals spend a lot of time considering sector-wide issues by looking at measures to better support governance in colleges; developing effective succession planning; working jointly on efficient government initiatives; and promoting the financial sustainability of the sector.

Already this August, there have been meetings of the principals' forum co-ordinating group, the shadow board of SCI has held a strategy day and the CPD steering group has looked at its forward plan for the coming year.

In Scotland's colleges, staff and students are back and raring to go. We have had a great summer and, having got through August by the time you read this, we are past the wicked bits and on our way to the next milestone of graduations and awards ceremonies.

The coming session holds its fair share of challenge and promise and I, for one, wouldn't have it any other way.

Sue Pinder is principal of West Lothian College

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