But first, a word about my own. Blogging silence has been enforced by a mystery shoulder affliction, which might be connected. Or not. Suffice to say, it is agony, I am a whimpering wreck when the painkillers threaten to wear off. And cannae do normal things which require the use of two hands. This post marks an occasional return which took two hours to type one-handed.
Bad as my week was, it could have been worse. I could have been the Education Secretary, Michael Russell. Suffice to say that he will have been dispatched by the Boss to his constituency this weekend to reflect on just how shoogly the peg on which his coat rests, is. Fortunately for the Education Secretary, there has just been a re-shuffle and the FM, as ever, is not one who acts under an admission of adversity. People come and go at his behest, not because he was made to. So, Michael Russell is safe. For now.
The stushies have arisen because of the Cabinet Secretary’s mission to reform the further education college sector. And no one likes change. Least of all the vested interests in charge of things the way they are and whose fiefdoms are being reduced to rubble. I cry no tears over the fate of the likes of Kirk Ramsay – one super college into three management structures does not go, after all – and a quick glance at Mr Ramsay’s career resume indicates that he has done very nicely moving around the sector, trailing mediocrity in his wake.
But the problem for Michael Russell is that he has become the story and the narrative behind the need for reform has got lost in the headlines. Indeed, the lack of evidence about further education and its impact makes it hard to create any narrative.
We know – now – that there’s less money for colleges this year but let’s get it in perspective.
In 2010-11 the budget for Scottish colleges was £578.2 million; in 2011-12 it fell to £544.7 million; and in the current year, it has fallen again to £506.9 million. The Spending Review forecast that the budget would fall still further in 2013-14, below £500 million. But the draft budget published for next year indicates a small rise to £511.7 million.
So, in four years, colleges have been hit by a funding shortfall of over £60 million. But split across each college, this starts to look less catastrophic. In the same period, through mergers, the number of colleges has fallen from 43 to 36, with more to come. Is it too much to presume that some of the savings from budget shortfall – amounting to less than half a million pounds per year per college since 2010 – could be found from reducing management structures, back room services etc and other areas of duplication? In these straitened times, with or without reform, why should colleges expect not to tighten their belts, the way other parts of the public sector have?
Moreover, to suggest that colleges’ loss has been universities’ gain is specious. There appears to be no direct link in funding transfer between the two. Instead, the budget figures suggest that the money which flowed directly to colleges has been diverted into employability and skills, with more money for Skills Development Scotland, more money for apprenticeships through youth employability and skills, and what’s this? more direct funding through a slightly different stream to colleges. This year, it’s £7.9 million, next year it will be £7 million. And that is without the indirect funding boost from the close relationship between further education and youth employability and skills in particular. Some of the young people on these apprenticeships will be spending some of their time on college courses.
For the opposition and colleges themselves to run the refrain of cuts is to ignore the more complex reality of current and future funding arrangements. And also, to suggest – as ever – that more money equals better. Yet, fewer colleges should surely incur fewer running costs, thereby protecting front-line college services. If that is not the case, then perhaps that should be the focus of everyone’s scrutiny.
And lost in the maelström of Mr Russell’s travails is the case for reform itself. Is change needed? In 2010, Scotland’s then 43 colleges provided learning opportunities for 47,630 full-time students and 267,777 part-time students. With just over 13,000 of them going to college directly from school – fewer, incidentally, than went to university. Part timers by definition do much of their learning by distance and through occasional forays on to campus. But each of Scotland’s colleges was providing a dedicated place to just over 1100 people. In a country of 5 million. This is niche learning in a sector which should be anything but.
Size would matter none if the quality was there. But there is very little quality control or indeed, consistency across the offerings in Scotland’s colleges. Within some parameters, they can teach what they like, and frequently do. An attempt in a work project a few years ago to map the early years’ courses available in Scotland created five pages of a bewildering array of qualifications. Few colleges taught the same courses leading to the same qualifications, with employers left, no doubt, to join the dots that someone proffering their HNC did indeed have the necessary skills and training to meet the competencies of the job.
In a small country, such an approach is unnecessary and wasteful. We do not need a Heinz approach to qualifications, what we need is assurance that every single supposedly full-time course is in fact, full-time – which is debatable – and that every single course leads to a recognised qualification which boosts employability and life skills. Moreover, colleges need to lead and not follow. A key role for further education is surely to future proof the nation’s skills’ needs. Are colleges currently generating a skills base among our young people which will set them fair, for life and work?
Who knows, for there are scant statistical sources available by which to determine the performance of our FE sector, in terms of outcomes for young people – especially our most vulnerable young people, those who have been looked after or have additional support needs. At least, on the Scottish Government website.
Which actually gives all the protagonists in this political soap opera a problem and suggests the Education Secretary’s toil and trouble might continue. If he cannot point to the need for reform to improve output and outcomes, the opposition will continue to fling mud about this being a cost-driven – and arguably worse, a class driven – reform. And mud sticks.