IT is night. The night of Christmas Eve to be exact, and the snow is falling on the pavements outside the Department for Education and Employment.
Inside, Ebenezer Blunkett, secretary of state and custodian of British education, counts out the piles of shiny coins he has allocated to each sector for the coming year. "Too large, too large," he mutters. However hard he tries, he still can't reduce the further education pile any further.
Growing weary of this task, overcome by the warmth of his counting house, Ebenezer begins to doze. What is that? All of a sudden the room has turned icy cold. Now his faithful old dog begins to howl. He feels the hairs on his neck rise up.
"That's strange," thinks Ebenezer, "I wouldn't have thought Mandelson would come calling at this hour."
But this is no earthly manifestation. For into the room has come a strange, other-worldly cavalcade. At its head is an ethereal Roger Ward, one-time darling of Tory educationists and master of the Association of Colleges. He is followed by a procession of well-fed chief executives, college managers, franchisees, carpet-baggers and other gravy-train regulars, some in prison garb.
In keeping with his new role as gourmet and restaurateur, Roger is immaculate in chef's trousers, white tunic and tall hat. Under his arm he carries his recently-published book, Cooking up Something Fishy, which may or may not be a reference to his recipes. He is pushing a coach-built hostess trolley, bearing the numberplate, RW 1(-derful).
"What manner of spectre are you?" asks a tremulous Ebenezer.
"I am the ghost of FE Christmas past," Roger replies, slapping at the grasping hands of his entourage, who have grown excited at the sight of so much money. "And I am come to call you to account for undermining my heritage by not being sufficiently scrooge-like with colleges, and particularly with the lecturers."
"Oh, but I am, I am a scrooge," protests the frugal minister. "We'll see about that, Ebenezer, once I have demonstrated to you what a real skinflint Christmas is like." Roger claps his hands. Slowly, hesitatingly, a tawdry, down-at-heel collection of men and women, most well past the first flush of youth, shuffle into the room. Many have sunken eyes or bowed heads. Some of them are quietly weeping. All carry huge piles of paper in their arms.
"The workforce, circa Christmas 997," says Roger. "Casualised, impoverished and completely demoralised. And all my own work. How it gladdens my heart to see them again." He claps once more and the sad procession melts away. "But now, Ebenezer, you risk spoiling everything by your un-scrooge-like ways. All this money I keep reading about. pound;50 million here and pound;600 million there. What sort of a way is that to run further education?" "Roger, you do me a disservice."' Ebenezer beckons him to his side. "Just think for a moment. For all our talk of spending, how much money have I actually put into the pockets of lecturers?" Roger thinks, scratches his head, says nothing.
"Precisely. And now I have a ghostly vision to show you." This time it is the minister who claps his hands. "Behold the family of college lecturer Bob Scratchit, enjoying their Christmas future. Christmas 200l to be precise. It is Christmas Day but notice what poor Scratchit is up to.
"He's working. On paperwork. But that could simply be a legacy from my time, Ebenezer."
"Not a bit of it. This is new paperwork. Part of my wonderful idea of something for something. To get even a sniff of new money, Scratchit and co are going to have to spend hundreds of hours of their time 'demonstrating' how much more efficient they are."
"On paper you mean?" "Of course. What other way is there? And even then, if he is successful, Scratchit won't be earning as much as a schoolteacher half his age. Now can you say I'm not an old skinflint?" "Well."
"You might also have noticed that Scratchit is shaking. That's because his college is due to be Ofsteded immediately after Christmas."
"All right David, I mean Ebenezer, I take it all back. You are a scrooge after all. Even I wouldn't have dared to bring the most reviled inspection service in the western world into colleges."
Ebenezer chuckles. He snaps his bony fingers and the vista of the Scratchit household disappears. Outside, a clock strikes seven. "Morning," says Ebenezer. "Christmas present morning. I must pay my visit to the real Scratchit household."
"Ebenezer! Don't tell me you're taking them a turkey?" "Of course not. I'm going to take away the one they already have."
They walk out of the office and into the morning light. "After all, what extra have they done to deserve it this year? Something for something Roger, eh?" And the snow-covered streets of London echo to the laughter of the bringers of Christmas past, present and future to the further education workforce.