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Now is the time to say goodbye

In my end is my beginning, said T S Eliot in that infuriatingly obscure way of his. Well, this is my end.

After eight bloody-minded and thoroughly cantankerous years of cathartic spleen-venting in various manifestations of FE Focus, I am going to chill down and cultivate my college, which is facing a merger, a new build and, joy of joys, yet another Ofsted inspection next year.

But maybe old T S was right and the end of my vinegary writing can be the beginning of a new calmer, more balanced phase of life where I banish all cynicism and scepticism and see things in a new light.

For example, I have always seen the Learning and Skills Council as a 47-legged octopus, likely to tie itself in knots just before it strangled itself and half the sector with it. With my new enlightened gaze I can see how misguided I was. The 47 legs have remained largely inert, with a few exceptions, so the greater danger was paralysis rather than strangulation.

And it's hardly their fault. They were asked to plan a new system but given no real power. They were asked to lead expansion with dwindling resources and take on school sixth forms without the body armour. No wonder our reviewer, Norman Foster, is off to America to look at the community college system. It's not just idle curiosity taking him there, I should imagine.

They were also asked to slay the dragon of bureaucracy. Unfortunately, LSC, the bureaucracy is bigger than both of us and getting bigger. So we should appreciate it if you'd stop trying now and give us all a break.

I've been unkind to politicians as well. I can't remember how many secretaries of state I've seen out but the nicest was Estelle Morris, who combined humanity with a real passion for education. Her hold on the English language was tenuous at times, however, and I once laughed out loud when she talked at a conference about "the enormity of what FE has done".

If my yelp of derision helped persuade her she wasn't up to the job, I'd be sad.

It was also hard to dislike the rest of the politicians assigned to FE, education's equivalent of the Northern Ireland posting, because they never stayed round long enough. They were either too talented to waste time in our scruffy backyard and were whisked off as soon as they'd shown a safe pair of hands; or they were error-prone disasters who quickly disappeared up their own gaffes, such as introducing a yellow and red card system for colleges.

But they keep reappearing and it's just as well. If FE politicians didn't exist we'd have to elect them. And the vote-rigging scandals would probably finish us off.

But my choicest bile was spilt on Ofsted. I never tired of pointing out the obvious conclusion to be drawn from the fact that FE was not seen to be improving despite the intensity of the inspection regime designed to do just that. In fact, after years of extremely robust Further Education Funding Council and Ofsted inspection the chief inspector was able to brand FE a "national disgrace". I think that's a grade 4 on the Ofsted scale and shows we have made, in their immortal phrase, no discernible progress from the grade 5 "scandal-ridden whingers" we started out as.

A new "light touch" inspection regime is replacing the old heavy-handed approach, but I am nostalgic for the butchery of yesteryear. That old approach really was surgery on a grand scale, applied whether we were sick or not. I think I speak for all my colleagues, especially those still in recovery, in saying to Ofsted how much we enjoyed going under your knife and how exhilarating an experience it was to watch our entrails being publicly paraded for our own good. I can't, of course, speak for those who died on the table, but they probably deserved it.

So in retrospect and completely unconnected with next term's inspection, perhaps I was a little hard on Ofsted. We should acknowledge, openly and without reservation, the enormous contribution Ofsted has made to the national debt. Their hotel bills alone, an estimated 10,000 bed-nights per year at pound;125 a night, should have been enough to secure a nomination for the Queen's Award from the leisure and catering industry. And that is before you add in the benefits to the surveillance industry as worried principals coughed up for listening devices in every inspector's room.

But the sunset beckons and I have just enough space to thank my colleagues at The TES who printed every rant almost completely unedited. It just shows the confidence you can get from a good lawyer. I want to thank Angela for proof-reading with an eye firmly on my back and four other hardy people, Jennifer, David, Emily and the Fruitcake, who said they never missed a column and found them all laughable. So this end does mean a new beginning.

At least until the inspection's over.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield college

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