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Big Mother is watching out for you, so there

Lecturers should watch much more TV. Not the new DfES-funded channel Teachers' TV, but ordinary and popular programmes. Talking recently to several academically-inclined or probably just snobbish lecturers, I was astonished to find they were proud of not having seen any of the programmes I referred to, and in two cases, proud of not having a TV.

Perhaps they felt safe from "dumbed-down" programming, but they were more in danger of not seeing how their professional role and the self-perceptions of FE students were changing. Here is my essential viewing for every FE lecturer: Little Angels; What Not to Wear; How Clean is Your house?; Can't Cook Won't Cook; You Are What You Eat; Speed Up, Slow Down; The Sex Inspectors. I could go on, but these choices will illustrate what I mean.

These programmes have a single and simple message, that people are hopeless. To prove this they show that they can't control their children, dress properly, keep their house clean, cook, eat sensibly, use their time well or have a decent sex life without help from an "expert".

We can recoil in horror or laugh at people's fecklessness, lack of taste, skill, and fumbling-or-fast sexual performance, but they are not about a few no-hopers but about all of us. The message is that we all need this sort of help. A generation is growing up with the message implanted in their minds they are dependent and need help.

The idea that we can't do anything without "expert" help is now commonplace. In the foyer of one FE college recently, I was confronted by a poster of a motherly, middle-aged woman, Dora.

Dora was the college counsellor, there to give students help and support of any sort. The comments in the college publicity folder, and from lecturers I spoke to, all indicated what a lovely, helpful woman Dora was. She was an asset to the college.

No offence to Dora, who was a no doubt a dear, but FE colleges were traditionally defined by their adult approach. You went there as an independent young person or adult. Now a central feature of FE appears to be having Big Mother watching out for you.

But the clearest illustration of the new dependency was the Connexions service, which aimed to give every young person between 13 and 25 a "personal adviser". A potential army of 20,000 experts would have been busy making sure that young people don't make the wrong life choices. I'm told by Connexions advisers that it was hard for students to get careers advice unless they had a "problem". Connexions may now be defunct but the personal adviser will be back in the form of more and more Doras!

This way of looking at people seems to me to be quite new. It clearly has its parallels in government policies, which manifest what I've often called a "caring contempt" for young people and, for that matter, for everyone else.

The danger is that the experts who help us are all so sincere and committed to helping that it seems unkind to criticise what they do. Unfortunately they are doing something that is very damaging to young people. The form of intervention by experts is caring but the content shows contempt for what young people can achieve.

Sociologists speak of "the diminished sense of human potential". I was uncertain what this meant, but watching TV makes it quite clear. It is, at least in part, the notion that we can't do anything without help, as we're hopeless.

You can see how this appeals to a certain sort of lecturer and to marketing managers who can see the need for more and more courses offering expert guidance. But they are promoting something that will be a long way from the traditional idea that you find in the textbooks about education for autonomy and independence.

The new FE may come to be more about perpetual dependence on the experts.

Lifelong learning is becoming lifelong dependence. If you don't believe this, skip that staff development or Certificate in Education session, put down Curzon, Minton, and Armitage et al and all the other textbooks that tell you about the role of the FE lecturer, and pick up that remote.

Dennis Hayes is head of post-compulsory education at Canterbury Christ Church university college

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