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As likely as a lecturers' leader not stuck in the 70s...

The 12 days of Christmas arrived on my doorstep some time ago, with three ragged kings, a strident night, glint in the eye and rattling collection box.

Too old to believe in Santa Claus and too young to enrol on a performing arts course, the singers were between fantasy and world weariness, the land which many of us in colleges inhabit most of the time. So I paid them off, and fell to thinking about the words of the carols.

Then I understood the glint: the 12 days are all to do with FE. Twelve lords a leaping refers to the dozen still-agile members of the upper chamber, notably Lord Davies (the new chair of the Further Education Funding Council), and the Baronesses Blackstone and Kennedy, but there are others, jumping up to promote the sector in debate after debate.

Eleven ladies dancing is an accurate description of one of our most treasured evening classes. We always hope for 20, preferably with a better gender balance, but it always seems to end up as the same 11 Joyce Grenfells, sailing over the gym floor, brightening wet and windy winter Tuesday evenings in Accrington.

The 10 pipers piping are clearly the members of the Training and Enterprise National Council who are so skilled at adapting and reorchestrating government tunes to which we have to devise a dance, whereas the nine drummers drumming must refer to the nine regional directors of the FEFC, forever, it seems, banging on about some performance indicator. With all these pipers and drummers, we ought to work harmoniously and rhythmically, but, alas, they were trained to different quality standards and the result is so discordant as to make your brain hurt.

Just look at those chubby-cheeked, cheerful maids a-milking. All eight of them busy squeezing the last drop from the cash cows which they imagine colleges to be. They all work for those entrepreneurial companies which have cornered the market in providing examination, assessment, accreditation, validation and verification services to colleges. They do compete with each other, don't they, but the technique of the milkmaids, the amounts extracted, and the pain inflicted are strikingly similar.

The seven swans a-swimming reminded me of the FEFC Inspectorate report on the curriculum areas which had been reinspected in 1996-97. These were the bits of colleges which had been graded 4 (more weaknesses than strengths) first-time round. In the case of seven colleges, the weak areas had been the provision they made for students with learning difficulties and disabilities. And lo! These ugly ducklings had turned into handsome swans, all of them now grade 3 or better. So there they are, seven graceful tributes to the work of the Tomlinson committee, which showed us how to make our colleges inclusive.

The six geese a-laying were obvious. There's been a lot of squawking and flapping in London recently about how the capital's colleges do badly out of the funding distribution system which takes insufficient account of the allegedly outrageous costs of living and working there. A gaggle of six London principals were invited to form the core of a group set up to consider the evidence. After a lot of hissing and honking they produced a spectacular clutch of gold eggs, each valued at a million pounds, to be handed out to the colleges in question. Nice lay, if you can get it.

Five gold rings? Possibly a reference to the international Skills Olympics, but British colleges have never won five golds, even though our hairdressers often sweep the floor with the opposition. More probably we are being reminded of the spate of weddings in the sector. Remember how the bells rang for Edexcel, and, not so long ago, the DFEE? All these happy couplings were engineered to bring vocational and academic traditions closer together, and four of them to make more money. But, as we all know, a wedding is one thing, marriage another. Those whom Mammon has joined together, almost anything could put asunder.

You can take your pick about which four calling birds represent colleges. Pelicans suggest themselves because they fill their beaks indiscriminately, sieving the contents and digesting only a proportion of - in the manner of colleges' recruitment, enrolment and retention? Or kookaburras, given to laughing hysterically and without warning. I favour swifts, which rush about all day and much of the night with their mouths open, screaming.

There used to be a series of Tesco TV ads in which Dudley Moore went looking for French hens. Three would have suited him. The point of the ad was that French hens can take their time, wander about, browsing and develop into rounded and contented creatures. French students are treated similarly, with a weekly programme of nearer 30 hours than the sub-20 to which ours have been reduced. Their more benign treatment may be less efficient than our battery farming but which is the better product?

David Blunkett and Kim Howells are two turtle doves. Their soft, reassuring sounds have soothed our troubled minds since May 1. They care. And we know it. Into our eager ears they pour their soft songs of a future of fulfilled hope.

A partridge in a pear tree is a metaphor, I am told, for an unlikely but pleasing combination of two or more circumstances. Like winning the lottery without buying a ticket; having a NATFHE general secretary who knows that the 70s are over, or electing an Association of Colleges board with as many balls as your average Christmas tree. One out of three can't be bad.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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