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Hammered by the motor mechanics

My induction into the basic skills department was a wild voyage of discovery -where do I locate things, which forms do I fill in, and how do I find the magic numbers to open doors, access student records, fill in time sheets?

Once I had a sane job in the real world where audit trails are just a posh word for book-keeping. For every student I support, I must fill in a form which says what objectives I have identified, what methods and resources I have used and where these match the core curriculum - for every student, for every lesson, for the whole course. And periodically I must review the student's aims and record their comments and get them to sign the form.

Every moment must be accounted for, every step of learning recorded, and everything cross-checked against everything else. Every penny of funding must be grovelled for and justified. But now the students have enrolled, been assessed, appeared on registers, signed learning agreements and discovered where they can smoke, so it's time to roll out the vocational courses and call in the basic skills support tutors. There are wannabe hairdressers, child-carers, motor mechanics and office administrators out there, just waiting for me to come and show them how to use apostrophes.

Entering the world of FE is a culture shock to those of us who have inhabited the housing estates of leafy suburbia and offices with a well-motivated, graduate workforce. Individually, vocational students may have a special charm all of their own, but put them together... My friend who has experience in FE recommends that I refuse to take on classes of motor mechanics but my line manager has put me down mostly for office skills where I feel on reasonably familiar ground.

The course organiser can't find someone to support the numeracy for the childcare course and asks if I will do it. She promises that it isn't rocket science, so I turn up at the appointed hour. The lecturer is nowhere to be seen. Meanwhile, a dozen sulky teenagers sit in the corridor, muttering darkly that they can't do maths, won't do maths, and don't see what it has to do with childcare. Then one, who is on placement in a maternity unit, changes the subject to painkillers during childbirth. All agree that when their turn comes, they will take any drug on offer, but not "that injection thing". Fifteen minutes later the lecturer arrives, having been on a hunt to track down the elusive room key. The students are not in forgiving mood.

The lecturer hands out some maths sheets, to see who can do what, and is pretty alarmed by the results. Most can add up, but some can't take 6 from 13 without resorting to their fingers. A few are trembling with fear, but covering it up well with bravado, and the girl from the maternity unit spends the whole session colouring in her timetable. Next time I must remember to offer her gas-and-air or pethadine.

I quickly learn that part-time support staff also support each other. At the end of the morning I bump into a charming woman who is also new. She gave up a good job in banking, on the wholly inadequate reason that she got bored. She is pretty shaky. "I've just been hammered by the motor mechanics," she gasps.

Gwen Kelly is a support teacher for adult literacy

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