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How I learned to believe in Father Christmas again

THE best Christmas I ever had was the last one before I said that I no longer believed in Santa Claus. Big mistake. I do now, and several times recently I have put on the big red coat, and handed out goodies to children in the college nurseries.

On that memorable morning, around 4am, I woke up to feel the comforting weight of a filled stocking on the end of the bed. I can still remember most of the contents. They included a pair of woollen socks, a bag of nuts, a diary, two comics, a raspberry-blower with feather attached, some marbles and an apple. I had desperately wanted a bow and set of arrows, and I got them later, round the tree after breakfast and church.

I have been reminded of that blissful day several times this year, because I have received a number of gifts, some anonymously, which eerily recall those which I found in the stocking long ago. The first to arrive was a pair of woollen socks, sent by the local training and enterprise council. There was no message. Were they subtly urging me to pull my corporate socks up and get better outcomes on future contracts? Or were they helping me not to get cold feet in the new era of learning and skills councils?

Then there was the small parcel from the staff. A bag of peanuts, with a sad little message: "This is what you pay us. Happy Christmas." I wish it were not quite so true. Salaries have not kept pace with inflation, still less with the pay of others in the public sector. Successive government allocations to the Further Education Funding Council and thence to colleges have simply ignored the pay question. Education Secretary David Blunkett was pleased to say this year that the efficiency gain required of the sector was down to 1 per cent, so to fund a pay award of, say, 3 per cent we have to find 4 per cent. Where's that supposed to come from?

The long-ago diary had information about tides and the populations of the countries of the British Commonwealth. These days I am deluged with naff diaries: wall diaries, desk diaries, pocket diaries and CD-Rom diaries. All of them from actual or would-be corporate clients. I'd swap the lot for one which listed the world's highest mountains, in feet, and the lngest rivers, in miles.

I wasn't usually allowed comics as a child. Along with television they were said to be bad for the eyes. Christmas was the exception, and there were usually two rolled up in the stocking, no doubt to keep me quiet until the rest of the family woke up. This year I got just one, anonymously. With it was a short note: "Time you got some new jokes". Fair enough. But this was a facsimile of a 1952 edition of The Beano. Ouch!

No apples this time, but a thoughtful friend sent me an early edition of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, the novel about growing up in Accrington, later turned into a television drama. It is the most widely acclaimed work by one of our former students, Jeanette Winterson. She is a reminder, if one were needed, of the power of further education to transform lives. Mature student returns to learning, develops new skills and new confidence, embarks on new career: you get the picture.

I have long since lost my marbles, and am too polite to blow raspberries. However I was given a resounding one, or rather the whole sector was, in the Prospectus for Learning and Skills Councils. FE has failed the nation, both pre-Incorporation and thereafter. It's official.

When practising with my bow and arrow set, I learned a number of truths which have stayed with me, and help to make sense of today's FE. It's important to have a target and to hit it, because if you don't, people get very cross, and chaos will ensue. The closer you are to the target when you take aim, the more likely you are to hit it. The way to guarantee a bull's-eye is to wait until the arrow has landed, then draw the target round it.

That New Year's Day my mother invited all the children in the street to a party, including some she had never seen before, and my father went to some trouble to get together a team of practically-minded people to teach the children how to make a sledge from bits of scrap wood. Unacceptably sexist now, of course, but they were early examples of New Year's resolutions to widen participation and promote inclusive learning. I'll try to match them in 2000.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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