The Education Secretary’s Toil and Trouble

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.

9 thoughts on “The Education Secretary’s Toil and Trouble

  1. Could I just say this is by far the most lucid and thorough analysis I have read of this whole stushie? Out of all the acres of press coverage! Top class stuff.

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  3. I’d forgotten that Early Years stuff you did – I’d welcome a copy as it could fit quite nicely into some things we’re trying to make headway on.

    Don’t care abut the politics of “pengate” but the next Meeting I’m at with SG Education folk I want to take a huge microphone sellotaped to a biro for a laugh – I’ll probably end up in a controlled explosion outside Victoria Quay but it’s worth the risk!

  4. I think we would all be wise to enjoy a period of silence on this.
    ” we need an Education Secretary who can show leadership, build climate of trust and work with the sector for the benefit of the people of Scotland.”


    I am none the wiser as to why the Education Secretary has given our enemies the opportunity to attack him on a matter of somebody recording a speech which was not private.

  5. The conduct of Lamont in Holyrood with her red faced angry shouty finger pointing glaring at the PO when rebuked for her mad bag women ranting is quite simply disgraceful and worse than any thing Russell has done or the FM for that matter. Now we hear that not only are Labour miscalling the Lord Advocate for ruling in favour of the FM on the EU in out shake it all about pantomime, they are now calling for a change in the rules that govern the PO and the reaction of the PO to the veracity of statements made by members. These very rules that were laid with the foundations of Holyrood by Labour. Labour has lived by the present system and abused it on many occasions not least when Lamont took a story of a rape to the chamber for a cheap nasty political stunt which proved to be false. A stunt ignored by the unionist biased MSM. One of the most serious crimes treated in a cheap nasty fashion born out of her desperation to discredit the SNP. Then there is the lies spread by her and Macintosh regarding the steel for the Forth crossing, and the repulsive babbling of Bailey with here false figures on HAIs in the NHS. As we see from the other side of the coin in the theeforsakenone comments above the college sector has become home to another hotbed of Labours self interested patronage riding pension pauchelers who behave just like their leaders in Holyrood. Quite frankly Labours performance in Holyrood is disgusting and they have abused their position as well as treating the electorate with contempt. The cheap name calling juvenile performance of Lamont is the epitome of Labour, she is dull boring and dim and the cause of boredom in others. Labour deserve the position they now enjoy in Scottish politics they have really earned it.

  6. There is a lot of chat today about how Mike Russell has taken the wrong approach in trying to get vested interests onside. These comments miss the obvious point that there is no way of getting these interests on the side of reform.

    Did he make a mistake over Kirk Ramsay? Possibly, but people who say this was an over-reaction are being hopelessly naive. Mr Ramsay was simply the first who could be made an example of – bad luck for him or perhaps his own stupidity – but it is now very clear that principals who try to get in the way of reforms that the democratically elected government wants to put in place are not going to be tolerated.

    I suspect that the route Mike Russell has taken has been necessitated by intransigence on the part of those who fear their fiefdoms are about to crumble around their ears. Russell has a mandate from the people of Scotland to enact his reforms and he has every right to remove obstacles that lie in the path of those reforms. There is a distinction to made between being a bully and being ruthless although, to those affected, it probably feels just the same.

    Does Russell do a good line in hubris? Undoubtedly. And because of that his opponents don’t like him. And because of that they waste their time name calling and resignation hunting instead of developing a coherent alternative to his reforms.

    Mr Russell might look stupid to some now, but if his opponents don’t get their act together they will be the ones looking like prize idiots when they embrace his reforms in the run up to the next election because they haven’t been able to come up with an alternative approach. They have plenty form in this area.

  7. I work in the FE sector and I personally think that the reforms going through have long been needed. Before, there was a stupid concept of competition between Colleges. One College would refuse to help others because they were ‘the competition’. It has led to the silliness that some Colleges can have waiting lists as long as your arm while other Colleges are struggling to fill places. (In fact, that current Labour line is driving me mad since I know for a fact my College is running courses for the New College Learning Programme and can’t get the places filled no matter what we’ve tried so far.)

    Quite simply, I think regionalisation is the best thing to have happened to the College sector. The less chiefs we have the better, and it’s about time College’s stopped treating each other like enemies out to steal their funding and as one sector dedicated to trying to help people getting into employment or university.

    Personally, I wouldn’t be against nationalisation…

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  9. Kate I realise the focus of your blog is not the early years but I was fascinated by your comment about Early Years courses. Did your organisation ever publish the results of that project or passit to theCabineet Secretary?
    As you may know Education Scotland just published their report MAKING A DIFFERENCE, which looked at the impact of teacher training and other degree level qualifications on outcomesfor children in the Early Years Sector, however the percentage number of staff holding qualification to this level is relatively low. The majority of Early Years staff have the basic level qualification which as you quite rightly say is a bewildering array.
    There is no consistency across the country as to what knowledge and skills we should expect someone with an HNC to have, in fact we cannot even assume that they will have had 2 years training as it is possible for students to fast track straight to the HNC year and come out with a qualification to work in the early years sector after only one year at F.E college, often straight from school.
    Students spend 2 days a week in placement to develop their practical skills so a student going straight into HNC could be working in the sector with less than 70 days (just over 2 months) practical training. Is that really what we want for our youngest children.
    The F.E. sector is indeed in need of reform on a number of levels, we need an Education Secretary who can show leadership, build climate of trust and work with the sector for the benefit of the people of Scotland.

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