Time for change in FE?

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Ben McLeish, Director of Public Affairs Co-op, asks if it is time for a change of emphasis in Scottish further education.

Ben McLeish

Having read the Scottish Government’s response to the final report from the Commission for Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce led by Sir Ian Wood, the one thing that jumped out at me was the full-time path that Further Education (FE) Colleges in Scotland have now been set off in.

Is this a case of 2 good or 2 bad? (Sorry Match of the Day 2) ….let’s explore !

Further Education has always had an full-time element to it, so formalising and modernising this is to be welcomed.

Also to be welcomed is the more structured way college skills are to be integrated in to future workforce planning. The recognition of what Colleges add to the Scotland’s skills base is long overdue.

That’s my 2 good. However (and there is always a however), now for my 2 Bad. What stood out distinctly for me was the absence or recognition of the role that part-time provision has to play in the overall Scottish skills agenda.

Part-time provision has been at the heart of growing the FE sector. Indeed when tasked with growing the FE sector year on year in the mid 2000s, part-time provision was key to achieving this.

Part-time provision in my opinion provides opportunities for all and allows ordinary Scot to engage with lifelong learning in a manner that suits their lifestyle, abilities and responsibilities.

My experience of part-time education is a positive one. As a senior manager working in one of Scotland’s largest colleges for the best part of a decade, we found part-time was the route to hook learners in to the benefits of acquiring work-ready skills. Failing to recognise this critical path of opportunity is something Scotland may regret in the future.

For me, not building the skills strategy for FE grounded in part-time and creating a vibrant part-time provision is an opportunity lost. I visited a college recently and was struck by the modal shift in such a short period of time. It seems that Scottish colleges have had to adapt to survive and work to strictures that do not readily fit with what FE has traditionally ‘been about’.

It’s not all lost and Scottish FE should still be able to go back to what it was doing so well. To do so we have to get politicians, civil servants and funding bodies to recognise there is merit in part-time learning. I would even go as far to say that there is even merit in offering what are sometimes referred to disparagingly as ‘hobby’ courses to stimulate the skills agenda in colleges.

A strength of the Scottish FE sector is that it does not try to compete with our Universities. FE was never about only delivering full-time provision. FE was – and still can be – a broad church, which welcomes everyone as an individual, on a basis of providing learning opportunities suited to them and their circumstances while providing our learners with skills that employers want.

FE is rooted in providing learners with practical skills that can be applied in the workplace whether or not the learner has been on a full-time course. Surely this is a strength and not a weakness, and is something Scotland should embrace and build upon.

So let’s not just change for change’s sake, let’s ensure that the FE sector leads the skills agenda, creating local opportunities for local people who live and work within the communities our colleges serve on a daily basis.