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All dressed up and ready for the adult world

Half term. Getting away from it all. Time to reflect. Describe your college: the budget; the number of part-time students; the number of full-time students; the average level of funding; the college's contribution to the national targets; efficiency savings made since 1993; savings planned to be made by the year 2000, date of probable insolvency.

Does this really describe a college? We recently had to give corporation members a glossary so that they could recognise the description of their own college. When students leave without finishing their course we tend to see a thousand pounds walking out of the door.

John Ruskin defined a college as a "collection of friendly people". Of course he wasn't talking about further education; of course we aren't always as friendly as we might be, but he was still nearer the mark.

Attending the leavers' prom this year, I didn't see this year's income in tuxedos and evening dresses; I saw a collection of friendly young people ritually marking the transition to full adulthood. And I thought as I watched them, we forget too easily that we are dealing with individuals rather than with a homogeneous set of units.

Here was the lad who came to us with such imperfect school attendance that we weren't sure if we'd keep him with us. After three years he's just completed his GNVQ with distinction, and is off to university. Now that he'd left, he said, he could tell me that we had a personal, as well as a professional, connection, since he and his older brother had been childhood friends of my son-in-law and his younger brother. He hadn't thought it proper to mention it until now.

There is the girl who objected to its being taken for granted that she would do general studies, and said she didn't need extra breadth. With a full set of high GCSE grades; a linguist, musician and artist, she's as broad as she'll need to be. Looking at her in her evening dress, I reflect that she could always become an international model - after the French degree, of course.

A young man in evening dress comes up to tell me that we've never met in his three years at the college. I'm not to worry, though, because the colleague who liaises with students is brilliant - "I told him so but he thought I was sending him up. Please tell him I meant it."

He gave me a frank and remarkably shrewd assessment of the teachers he'd had dealings with, and told me how well he's done since arriving from Argentina at the age of 11 with no English. And he's right, even if, as seems possible, he doesn't actually get his A-levels.

An ex-student comes to tell me of his progress. He was chairman of the student council four years ago when we first introduced the prom, and comes every year. He's not an academic and didn't go to university, nor is he an actor as he had once hoped to be, but a sales manager.

He says he found the skills he learnt chairing the council invaluable when he got his first management position at the age of 19. He's introduced quality circles, which he learnt about and initiated in college, and they work really well. He thinks he'll probably go on to do an MBA.

A bevy of beautiful girls take advantage of the occasion to kiss a favourite teacher. I decide that some of them at least know what they are doing to his adrenaline. Some of the boys, more awkwardly for the most part, peck the cheeks of their female teachers.

When they come to college for their exams, everything will be back to normal. Tonight, they feel able to show that they are more than mere exam candidates.

The prom is a good time for reflection, since one thing all the students have in common is a tolerance of noise levels which the Health and Safety Executive wouldn't allow if it were compulsory in the workplace. But now the music stops for the announcement of the student awards.

The students have produced certificates for those who have been the Most Annoying, Most Attractive, Most Vain and so on. The staff don't have a vote but agree enthusiastically with at least the first of these.

The awards are over; the staff who have helped to organise student affairs have been given their presents (still booze for the men and flowers for the women, I note), and the DJ invites everyone to party for the rest of the night.

It's time for me to slip off, before the balloons are released and the students become tired and emotional. Tomorrow, they'll be revising and I'll be strategically planning.

Anne Smith is principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon

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