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Career laundry: a bid for lifestyle redemption

Among the slew of depressing lifestyle makeover programmes on television is Life Laundry. Like others of its genre, a stern yet insincerely empathetic self-styled expert in some mundane aspect of daily life invites its hapless participants to feel completely useless about themselves, disclose their uselessness in terms of low self-esteem or other emotional baggage (preferably weeping to camera), then seek redemption through their help.

This supposedly tough-love approach relies on presenting ordinary people as incapable of dressing interestingly in their middle age, looking appropriately youthful after 40, disciplining their kids, eating well or organising the housework. After confrontation, help and disclosure, there are hugs all round as the grateful and reformed person knows how to dress, eat, whatever.

Supposedly resistant to the appeal of this diminished, depressing approach to managing everyday life, I have nevertheless succumbed to thinking that those of us working in post-compulsory education need a work version of Life Laundry. And if I ever tire of working in education, I might pitch the idea of "Career Laundry" to the BBC. I might do it anyway.

In this programme, someone who has retired from further or higher education and who now exhibits that relaxed, healthy demeanour of everyone who has retired, would visit you in your office, as you are about to embark on a job change and need to clear out your office. Mind you, it would have more therapeutic possibilities for breaking down your resistance and then building you up again if you were being made redundant.

Anyway, whatever the reason for having to confront those files, boxes and piles of stuff that fill your shelves, cupboards and filing cabinet, and possibly most of the floor, some po-faced paragon of virtue would help you.

Of course, you would struggle to throw away copies of the 1999 White Paper, Learning to Succeed, 25 back-copies of the now defunct College Research Journal and the mountains of documents about proposed teaching standards for FE. Not forgetting the thousands of evaluation reports for government agencies, the academic journal articles and all your teaching notes on "developments in the FE sector" that need updating every six months if students on the teacher training course are to believe you have any street cred.

The vicarious emotional format of makeover TV would require this paragon of career virtue to make you break down a bit as you reveal why it's so hard to throw this rubbish away and why you have taken it with you in every career move so far. You would have to reminisce over the past 20 years of your life in the sector, with its repeated new dawns and renaissances, its yearly changes in ministers responsible for a sector most of them never understand before they move on to something more politically lucrative, its hundreds of initiatives and the forests of trees felled in promoting them.

She would make you confront why you have kept everything written about NVQs and all the promises of competence-based qualifications during the 1980s and 1990s as some sort of sadistic memento. And if she finished up making you think about the billions in tax payers' money spent on restructurings, new organisations and new regulations... in fact, you would probably need a real therapist to deal with that. So let's not go there, as they say.

Once you had gone through this therapeutic outpouring and come to terms with the effects on your confidence to organise a decent office, with useful and interesting documents that show you in a credible, efficient and fascinating light, the guru would create a therapeutic shredding or burning ceremony.

Then, with beautifully matching files, with labels that reflect what's in them, you could organise what's left into a perfect new office. And in the process, amid the documents you really no longer need, you would find gems - brilliant papers you want to read again, new ideas for papers you might write, documents like A Basis for Choice that were so crucial in your career when you were optimistic and believed you could create a really good education for young people leaving school with no qualifications. Through your lifestyle redemption, your enthusiasm for educational aspirations and respect for your colleagues working in the sector would be reignited.

Well, that's what I'd tell the BBC. I feel better for sharing this with you. And my office is now interesting and streamlined. The matching file boxes come next.

Kathryn Ecclestone is reader in assessment at the University of Nottingham

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