Helena, face the facts: new Labour means old austerity

Stephen Jones

Poor old Helena Kennedy. She's not very well-informed is she? She may be a barrister, Queen's Counsel, she may hob-nob with the Blairs and other new Labour luminaries. But when it comes to education she's nowt but a child.

At least it looks suspiciously that way if the copious leaks from her forthcoming study on widening access to further education are to be believed. Because, strange though it may seem, Ms Kennedy's report seems set to say exactly the sort of things that those of us (left) at the grassroots of FE have been saying for years.

And our ideas, let's face it, have always been a bit on the wacky side. Naive, unrealistic, childish - these are just some of the kinder things that the Further Education Funding Council, the Association of Colleges and every other "grown up" in our brave new post-incorporation FE world has had to say about them.

So, if our thoughts on these matters are so barmy, where does that leave Ms Kennedy's? Let us examine more precisely where she has got it wrong: * She wants to take money from the universities and give it to FE. To this there is only one possible answer: no, no, no, no, no! What is she trying to do? Doesn't she realise that the last thing that further education needs is more money? Does she really want to see a return to the bad old days when one in five colleges weren't on the brink of going bust, and lecturers were paid at a rate slightly above that of the average street sweeper?

Is she such a kill-joy as to want to stop the fun of colleges being ripped apart by sackings and strikes and get back to a time when morale was passably high and teaching was considered the main job of teachers. I don't think so.

Luckily the Government isn't likely to either. Taking money from universities will hardly go down well with their new middle-class voters. And haven't they made it clear a hundred times over that new Labour equals old austerity where new money is concerned?

* She wants to target the poor and put money into educationally deprived areas.

When will she learn? The whole point of FE over the past several years has been to keep such people out of colleges. Isn't that what we pay our army of security guards for? First a system was designed in such a way that well-scrubbed young people from good homes would always attract more funds than poorer, older, more problematic learners.

Then, just in case any of them still had the temerity to want to get their grubby, working-class noses round the house of learning's door, the benefit system was changed to ensure that they could only do so by living in grinding poverty.

And now along comes Ms Kennedy and blithely talks about paying colleges more to take in such students. The next thing we know she'll be whining on about education being the right of all and having a "social purpose".

* She wants further education to have a social purpose.

Aaaagh! What is it with her? Doesn't she know that all that caring crap is yesterday's news? All right we pay lip service to all that soppy stuff about community needs and single mothers - that's what our mission statements and the pretty posters on the Customer Care officer's walls are for.

But surely she can't expect us to mean it as well? Otherwise how would we ever have time for the real business of further education: making money!

* She wants to dilute the business ethos which, she says, is "distorting" colleges' real purpose. And anyway, does she really want an unemployment crisis on her hands?

Not every college may yet have hit the magic ratio of two backroom staff to every one teacher, but we're getting there. What does she think is going to happen to all those redundant managers and accountants under her new regime?

And then there's the poor chief executives to think about? Can they really be expected to turn themselves, like so many Vicars of Bray, back into college principals? To hand over the keys to the BMW and the en-suite executive bathroom and become liberal educationists again?

What a dull world theirs would be with no more wholesale sackings of lecturers to brag about at management get-togethers ("You mean you gave them 15 whole minutes to get off the premises? Huh! I gave them five and stapled their redundancy notices to their ears!") No, I'm sorry, Helena, it's just not going to work. You've clearly got a lot of rewriting to do before that report hits the streets next week. Or perhaps you should stick to righting the wrongs of the legal system and leave our colleges to those who really know what education is about.

Stephen Jones is an FE lecturer in London

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