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Looking for a miracle among the mocks;Commentary;Opinion;FE Focus

January. A colleague regrets asking his class if they had a happy Christmas. It seems that those who didn't take to their beds themselves will remember this year as the one in which a grandparent died.

Another colleague had an exciting time when his chimney caught fire; he is now prepared to moonlight by advertising smoke alarms, as they saved his family's lives. I shall also remember this Christmas as the one I learned that a four-year-old granddaughter had been expelled from ballet class. I blame the parents.

A new week: a new term: a new year. What are our priorities this January, in the first week of term? The 450-page New Deal bid was issued to us on December 18 and had to be delivered on January 7. We can't answer half the questions, especially those asking for cost breakdowns. It will depend how many customers we are sent. A class of 20 is cheaper pro rata than a group of five. Since the funding per capita is indicative only, we pepper our bid with caveats. We are expected to know exactly what we plan to do while the Employment Service offers no guarantee of funding per capita or even whether there will be any capita.

In any gap we have at this time of the year, we interview prospective students - before college, after college, in college, in schools. Why do you want to study here? It's got a good reputation for A-levels. Do you think you will qualify to do A-levels? Not really, but I want to be in a college with those who did qualify. I'm sure it'll all rub off.

Except that isn't what usually happens. I see one second-year student and give him until the end of the month before we make a final joint decision about his future here. He will take his mocks and we shall see whether the miracle he has been waiting for - less confidently recently - has come about. If not, we shall find that not attending lessons and not doing assignments leads to a fairly confident prediction of failure in June.

He says he's amazed we have put up with him for so long. I don't tell him about the pressure to improve retention rates. The only subject teacher who has never complained about him is his teacher for music technology. When he leaves, be it sooner or later, he will be a pop musician.

A student comes to tell me that she and a friend have been offered places to read PPE and law at Oxford. She thanks me for being optimistic for her, but says I can't stop yet as she has to get three A grades to take up her place. I express total confidence in her. I know she'll work with complete commitment to get A grades in all four of her A-levels and won't hold back anything to cover the possible disappointment of failure. She is a fine pianist: when she has gone, I wonder whether being a performer encourages the risk-taking and "go for it" mentality.

If so, it hasn't got through to one university. Shortly after I've congratulated the other successful candidate I get a letter from the university she probably won't go to asking me to confirm that our A-level music course is at least two-thirds academic and only one-third performance.

January is mock examination time. It's also time for external tests of modules for A-level and the new pilot GNVQ key skills. By 10.00 on the first day of term, the counsellor has seen four hysterical students. There is no link between levels of hysteria and potential or even probable examination performance. Some students can't achieve anything without a spot of histrionics; others regard a predicted U (unclassified grade) as a sort of hammock to be laid back in.

The management information system has taken a turn for the proactive; it keeps sending me updates on applications - who's applied from where, for what. It estimates how many applicants will accept, and how many of them will actually turn up. Looking back over the past three years I notice that the more applicants there are for a subject, the lower percentage of them eventually seems to turn up. I'm not sure I know why this is, but the MIS hasn't spotted it, and I think we may have over-estimated some probable enrolments. Too early to worry anyway.

An anxious parent whose 16-year-old can't bear to go on with A-levels at a nearby school arrives. The daughter, I am told, is timid, easily put off, and has low self-esteem. In addition she seems to have lived in at least three countries, and lost her father in a road accident two years ago. However, she thinks she might like college where you can be more invisible than at school. The only thing is, do we have Rude Boys? It is clear that she means more than rude boys but I'm not sure what. I say yes, probably, but not to worry. We are against rude, and have procedures to deal with it. (Later, I check with colleagues and find Rude Boys are Harry Enfield's Kevin lookalikes. You learn something new every day.) We've only been back two days; tonight we go home, if we are traditionalists, and take down the decorations after a holiday which now seems a long way off. Then there should be a little time to finish opening the consultation documents dated December 22 and reading the letters sent to us during the break by the indefatigable Further Education Funding Council and Department for Education and Employment.

Anne Smith is principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon

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