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New feathers, but the pecking order endures

A strange communication arrived the other day. What made it odd was the address on the front: "Department of English - Senior Staff Common Room". I checked the postage. Perhaps it had slipped down the back of the furniture in the sorting office in 1956 and only just resurfaced.

But no. It had been sent out long after the Suez crisis had been resolved. Only five days previously, to be exact. Surely then I must have blundered into some sort of time warp. No colleges have common rooms any more, do they? And if the odd antediluvian one still does, I can't believe they actually have two: one each for junior and senior staff.

I glanced around me to see if all the staff were wearing tweed jackets, smoking pipes and referring to one another as "old man" - this of course being the time before (in FE at least) women had been invented. Another "No". I was still grounded firmly in 2007. I could tell this because the next three items in my pigeon hole were all about the dumb subject of smart targets. I had another look at the package. It was an arts magazine sent out free to English teachers. Perhaps they had an anti-ageist policy that required their postroom staff to be well to the north of 90.

Whatever was behind the blip, it started me thinking about status and pecking orders in colleges. You knew where you were when Senior Common Room was stencilled on the door: in my case, knocking and waiting. But while today it might be less clear, are we really any less hierarchical than we were then?

Back in the days before the 1990s, when colleges were incorporated, there was a great chain of FE beings which was pretty uniformly applied across the land. This ran in nine recognisable steps from bottom to top: AL, Ll, L2, SL, PL, deputy HOD, HOD, VP and principal. Uniforms with stripes and pips were not compulsory, but they were worn - metaphorically at least.

Today most of that's gone - both in structure and nomenclature. Even the man or woman at the top often chooses to ditch the traditional handle of principal in favour of the more business-oriented chief executive. The lecturer grades have been flattened out, so where before there were five, now there is only one: main grade lecturer.

In their place, though, have come the legions of those we now call managers. Most colleges are still organised in departments, though to call them that has long been a no-no. The department (or school, or faculty, or thingy-that-looks-and-smells-and-tastes-like-a-department-but-must-never- be-referred-to-as-such) has a manager of one kind or another. Below them will be one or two layers, one of which is likely to be the ubiquitous curriculum manager.

Above the departmental level, we enter a sort of managerial adventure playground. This may or may not involve a recognisable hierarchy - in many colleges it is simply a mess.

Here the managers may or may not actually be called managers. "Director" is much favoured as an alternative. It not only sounds grand but brings a plethora of assistant directors, assistant to directors and assistant to assistant directors trailing in its wake.

At the very top some clarity returns, although guessing whether the vice principal is junior or senior to the deputy principal (or indeed to the deputy to the principal) is still a popular parlour game in some colleges.

So is this more or less hierarchical than the system it has replaced? The answer must surely be both yes and no. They may no longer pass the port in the principal lecturers' dining room. The chief executive might be Jim rather than Mr Smith. But in one form or another, the great chain of FE beings surely still exists in a college near you.

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