Alice in numbers hole

Gwen Kelly

When I was a child, my mother read Alice in Wonderland to me. It turned out to be a useful preparation for the strange world of basic skills in Further Education. As I recall, Alice falls into a hole and finds herself in a surreal world where nothing is predictable. One of the first characters that she comes across is a white rabbit, which rushes around complaining that there is no time.

I used to work in an office, but when the position became redundant, I decided to become a support tutor for adult literacy. My former colleagues said it was a wonderful idea. My friend in FE called it a brave decision.

So by the middle of September, like Alice, I had fallen into a hole in the ground and landed in a parallel universe.

Lewis Carroll, who wrote Alice, was a university don who loved mathematics.

No surprise, then, that in this analogous world I would need to collect numbers. On day one, I needed a code to operate the barrier to the staff car park (which I can't use because I haven't got a permit). Then I needed a number to get into the staff room (I don't really need this either, as I haven't got a desk). There's a staff toilet you can use, if you know the code, but as I didn't, I ventured into the students' loos. Here it appears that girls can't use the facilities without first phoning a friend. I remembered to get the code for the photocopier, but unfortunately forgot to note which machine it operates.

On day two, none of this carefully-researched information was of any use as I was on another campus, where all the codes were different.

I will need a computer log-on and a library ticket, but I can't get these until I have an identity number. I can't get an identity number until I have a pay code. I can't get a pay code until the end of the first month when I have submitted a pay claim. To verify my pay claim I must enter the course number for every lesson I have attended, which is a 10-item string of apparently random letters and numbers. Before each lesson I must gather a register, a set of student records for each individual I will support, and a room key from the key safe. After each lesson I must return all items and collect a set for the following lesson. As each item is in a different location, and some of my lessons are far away, and consecutive sessions have no changeover time allowed, this is physically impossible. I must prioritise the key or the next group will be locked out.

Whoever wrote my timetable had bitten into Alice's "eat me" cakes. An initial offer of six hours of teaching changed in week one to 16 hours. By week two, some classes had been cancelled and I was down to 10 hours. By week three, when students had been assessed and the depths of their basic skills plumbed, I could work as many hours as I wanted. By week four, some students had dropped out and my hours were rearranged. By week five, outreach courses were getting underway: would I like to work evenings as well?

Has anyone seen a white rabbit with a pocket watch round here?

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Gwen Kelly

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