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Lost world of Henry Wilt

"Wilt," said my friend, "he had it easy!" His scornful look took in me, his rapidly emptying glass and the bar - hoping no doubt that the three would shortly be united in a happy conjunction.

Before I took the hint, however, I asked for an explanation. I knew of course that he was referring to the eponymous hero of the only novel set in an FE college that's ever been read by more than two men and a dog. But Henry Wilt, as I recalled, had a tricky time of it as he attempted to "civilise" the likes of Meat One and Gasfitters Two in his liberal studies classes.

My drinking companion, it transpired, had just completed what he called his "Woeful Wednesday": three successive one-hour classes of key skills numeracy with the beauticians, musicians and electricians respectively.

"Tough eh?" I ventured, delaying further the moment when my cash would find its way into the barman's hot little hand. "You can't imagine just how tough. I tell you, Wilt had it easy. He should have tried teaching decimals to a bunch of innumerate hairdressers. It's not that they don't know. It's more that they don't want to know."

I bought him his drink and listened while he expanded on the Wilt comparison. "That Wilt, he taught liberal studies to day-release students, right? I'm sure it seemed like a good idea at the time, but in the end it was just about survival. So, you turned up 10 minutes late and finished 10 minutes early. "In the middle, you gave them a 10-minute break and they always took 20. That means you only had 20 minutes left to stop them hitting each other or you."

He paused to take another swig of his liquid therapy. "Not only that though. There was no syllabus, no exams and no marking. In other words, no worries. But, with me, they're actually expected to learn something; pass their exams; move up the levels. Those old liberal studies lecturers never had some Charlie ringing them up on June 1 asking where his students'

portfolios were. Portfolios! From the electricians? You might as well ask me to run naked up Snowdon. I tell you, that Wilt had it easy. You check it out."

I did. I thought the novel must have come out about 20 years ago, my battered old paperback edition reveals that it was actually published in 1976. A lot has changed in FE since then - and it shows.

What everyone remembers about Wilt is the inflatable doll. Rehearsing an implausible future murder of his wife, our tipsy hero drops it into a hole dug for the foundations of a new college building. Next day, just as the concrete is being poured in, someone glimpses a 'body' down beneath.

Wilt is pulled in for questioning. By a sleight of author Tom Sharpe's hand, Wilt's real wife has disappeared on an impromptu holiday - so he has a case to answer.

The long-running joke is that Wilt can remain cheerful under cross-examination by the hard-pressed Inspector Flint, because of the years of classroom battles he's fought with his stroppy charges. "Day after day, year in and year out," he reflects after yet another session of gruelling interrogation. "With Gasfitters One and Printers Three, with Day Release Motor Mechanics and Meat Two. By comparison Sergeant Yates and Inspector Flint were child's play."

Readers of a certain age will recall that liberal studies slipped from our gaze some time before colleges left local authority control in 1993. When New Labour came along, with their decidedly utilitarian agenda, it was re-born as key skills - the intention being to enable youngsters to catch up on the English, maths and IT they'd failed to master at school.

Interestingly, Wilt himself looks forward to this new era of skills not thrills at the end of the novel. Once it has been firmly established that his wife is still alive, Wilt blackmails his principal into giving him the post of head of liberal studies. In return, he promises not to tell his story - including the college's woeful lack of support for him in his hour of need - to the tabloids.

Even before he gets the job, he decides that in future, "Gasfitters One and Meat Two would learn the how of things and not why. How to read and write.

How to make beer. How to fiddle their tax returns."

Sharpe can be forgiven for overplaying the educational importance of micro-breweries, or not predicting the rise and rise of the personal computer. But his "read and write" and "fiddling tax" look a lot like the literacy and numeracy taught in key skills today.

There is a lot to be said for trying to expand the horizons and broaden the minds of students on narrow vocational programmes. And you can't argue either with the notion of allowing those who have never mastered the basics to get another chance to do so.

The real problem - felt by Henry Wilt 30 years ago and by my friend with his Woeful Wednesdays in 2006 - is one of consumer resistance. We know it's good for them. But do they?

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