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Just more of the change

I was sitting in my local, the Black Dog, the other night, staring deep into a pint of mild and feeling as optimistic as a warthog in a beauty contest, when I was joined by my neighbour. He is a well-meaning sort with an unwitting gift of treading your golf ball deeper into the bunker sand of life.

"Goodness," he said, "you look like you've just got Chris Tarrant to ask the audience on a pound;100 question. What's up?"

I sat him down and went to the bar for a couple of pints. It was going to be a long evening.

"Don't worry," he said, as I put his drink in front of him. "I've just started a counselling course at college, so you can tell me everything."

"It's just work. Just an FE thing. We're being reviewed, all of us, the whole sector, by Sir Andrew Foster," I said.

"Well, that's all right then," he said. "What does an architect know about colleges? Anyway, if he can build a Reichstag the Germans are happy with, he's bound to do a cracking job for you."

"That's Norman," I said. "Andrew's his brother, I think, and a very crafty, no-nonsense banker and bureaucracy-buster."

"Well, same thing, what does a banker know about FE?"

"That's the worry," I said. "Unless he's a really sharp dog and slips the civil service leash, they'll just show him the lampposts to sniff around and the rest is inevitable."

"Listen," my neighbour said. "Change the lamp-posts analogy. Negative imagery. Think positive.

"Mind you," he went on, "you haven't a lot to be positive about, have you? I mean, what have FE colleges ever done for us?"

"You mean apart from the four million students a year on tens of thousands of different qualifications?"

"Yes, I know what you mean," said my neighbour, with his foot on my golf ball. "Big soul-less places, no pastoral care and everybody fails."

"Well, not quite," I said, a little rattled. "I bet you didn't know that success rates - that's retention times achievement rates - are rising faster than in any other sector, allowing for curriculum-profile and distance-travelled measures."

"No," he said, taking an appreciative sip of the beer I'd bought him, "I didn't know that. But do your students pass their exams, that's the question? What'll you tell your big banker fella when he asks you that, hey?"

I could see my golf ball disappearing into the sand faster than the pint down my neighbour's throat. "I'll have another one since its free," he said.

"God," I said, "you sound just like an employer asking for training. And that's another thing we do, by the way, we keep industry so well supplied with workers the bosses have enough time to fill in CBI surveys saying how hopeless we are."

"Whingeing won't do it for you, pal," he said, draining his second and examining the bottom of his glass encouragingly.

"When Marks Spencer started losing money, it didn't blame its customers, did it? No, it changed its product, started some aggressive marketing and looked for a new client base.

"Of course, it lost even more money. So I suppose if the market's agin you and the big boys are after you, there's nothing you can do about it. But whingeing will only make it worse."

"Listen," he said, after his third pint, "never expect any favours. Even if you do have millions of students with nowhere else to go, get thousands a day off the dole queue, make silk purses by the dozen and look after two-thirds of the nation's school-leavers, it doesn't mean you're exempt."

"Exempt from what?" I said, returning from the bar with his fourth.

"The agenda for change," he said. "I bet you've got one, too. It's all about covering up political failure. Look. This country's bottom of the league for child poverty. Poverty leads to poor diet, druggy life-styles, crime, anti-social behaviour, under-achievement, truancy, poor attitude and general don't-give-a-damn-ness.

"Your job is to sort out the poor devils trapped at the bottom of the pile and shove some respect into 'em. It's the same where I work in the NHS.

Obesity, smoking, heart attacks, drugs and disease. All to do with poverty and all down to us to cure.

"We're supposed to get everybody equally healthy regardless of their circumstances. And when we don't, we get the agenda for change. It's the same with you.

"The Further Education Funding Council failed, let's have the Learning and Skills Council for a while. Schools have failed, let's have academies.

Colleges have failed, let's have something else. Don't know what else, so let's have a review and an agenda for change.

"It makes the politicians look as if they're in charge. And that's where your architect's brother comes in."

He looked at me from over the top of his glass. Of course, he was completely wrong about our leaders. Only a cynic or maudlin Marxist could think like that.

"Just one more thing," he said, waving his empty glass in my direction. "My counselling fee."

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield college

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