The mystery of the noose at my doorstep

I forget now which homespun American writer of Christmas cracker mottoes it was, but somebody once remarked that if you want your message to be believed, make sure it's one that your listener wants to hear.

How very true, and how clearly we have demonstrated that truth in the college sector in recent times. We wanted to be told that incorporation would make us free, happy and rich, so we believed them when they told us it would. We were desperate to be reassured that Option E in the proposed funding methodology would be good for us because it was the fairest and the most transparent, so we all (or nearly all) voted for it. Because it was so comforting to hear them say it, we even believed that our sector was the Government's favourite.

We like to think of ourselves as people who are shrewd and perceptive, not ones to be sold a pup while the wool is pulled over our wide-open eyes.We are as street-wise as those experienced shoppers who know good, pure meat when they see it. Except that it now turns out that they don't and that a lot of it is covered with unpleasant substances which should have been removed in the abbatoir.

How nice it is to be sure that Further Education Funding Council (FEFC) inspectors, by contrast, were never subject to the undue pressures and even intimidation that allegedly led their counterparts in food hygiene to overlook clear evidence of bovine faecal matter (for which our term is shorter and more direct). The list could go on: the 16-hour rule; the transfer of FEFC money to the training and enteprise councils; the demand-led element; youth credits - all examples of issues about which our optimistic wishes were fathers to our gullible thoughts of clarity and fairness.

I now know that this is not just a condition that afflicts managers of colleges, as recent events here in East Lancashire have emphatically and disturbingly shown. The facts are that we identified a redundancy among the permanent history staff of the college and accordingly, with regret, made an individual redundant.

Extraneous and irrelevant matters included the colour of his hair and eyes, his age, his place in the staff football team, and his secretaryship of the college branch of the lecturers' union NATFHE.

The storm of protests that blew up was formidable. My hate-mail was remarkable for its volume, its uniformity, and its firm grasp of the wrong end of the stick. A very large number of people who had and have nothing whatever to do with the college took it upon themselves to write in. They might have been competing for the Humpty Dumpty Cup, awarded to those who jump first and furthest to conclusions, in memory of the eponymous egg who, you remember, had trained himself to believe several incredible things before breakfast. They were desperate to believe something, so believe it they did.

It was interesting to note that nearly all the letters came from people employed in education, mostly in colleges like this one, others in universities. The depressing part was that there was almost no sign of the independence of view which we might reasonably expect from academics. I looked largely in vain for any acknowledgement that there may have been another side to the story with which they had obviously been fed: that he had been victimised because of one of the extraneous and irrelevant factors to which I have referred. The widespread inability of education professionals to add two and two and make anything other than five is a serious indictment of the nation's mathematics teaching.

Some people wrote more than once, almost as though they had nothing better to do than fire off intemperate letters both to me and the chairman of the college governors. These correspondents were without exception in the higher education sector, where the concepts of time and urgency may be different.

By what I am determined to believe was a pure coincidence, strange things began to happen at the same time as the letters and faxes came in. Some person or persons rang me repeatedly on my home telephone. Curiously, no sooner had they got through than they apparently forgot what they were going to say, because all they did was to breathe heavily for a bit and then hang up.

It may have been the same reticent person who became entangled with my telephone answering machine. If you have a BT answering service you will know that a friendly voice not only greets callers and asks them to leave their message, but also informs you, the subscriber, about how many calls there have been. Around this time I picked up the telephone one evening to be told that somebody had been trying to break into my voice-mail box, presumably in order to listen to my messages. The friendly voice advised me to change my code number.

That was odd, but things became, as Alice would have said, curiouser and curiouser. By another coincidence, as I am happy to believe, a group of Boy Scouts must have been practising their knots while sitting on the steps leading up to my front door. One of them must have been as intermittently forgetful as the mysterious telephone caller, because, returning home after a hard day spent answering correspondence, I found a neatly tied noose on my doorstep. Strangely, the Scout has never returned to claim it.

Things have now returned to what passes for normality in this sector: the postman's knees no longer sag, callers have stopped breathing, and the step is free of rope. It is hard to know quite what to make of it all, except that, if you find yourself having to make somebody redundant, you may save yourself some trouble if you make sure that they do not play in the college staff football team.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College, Lancashire

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