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Recipe for a gourmet dog's dinner;FE Focus;Opinion

I have a terrific stock of recurring nightmares.

In one of them, dressed only in a vest which doesn't quite cover what I want it to, I am giving evidence to the Parliamentary accounts committee on why the college audit committee consists of my wife, her best friend and the neighbour's cat. In another, I am back working for the Further Education Funding Council, with responsibility for customer care and public relations.

But by far the worst and most common is to do with my cooking skills. I am a lousy cook and at least once a week I wake up screaming after finding myself on the wrong end of Loyd Grossman's vowels as a contestant on Masterchef.

It isn't that I can't crack an egg, or mash a potato, or fry some onions. Doing them all at once is the problem. Co-ordinating everything into one big production, where everything is ready at the same time and ends with something remotely edible proves beyond me. I have tried Delia Smith, but my mind spins just at the sight of a list of ingredients.

God knows what would happen if I ever tried to put any of it into practice.

So appearing on a show where, in front of millions of people, I had to stir, saute, reduce, whisk, fry, blend and serve a frightening range of unpredictable and improbable ingredients, all done to a deadline with no possibility of slippage and culminating in judgement by a panel of experts, is not my idea of a day at the beach.

And right now is not a good time to be a lousy cook and a college principal. A big strategic dish has to be cooked and set before the king, in his counting house, counting out the money. And the fact that a new plan is not compulsory this year does not mean it will not be required, especially of those about to be inspected.

In the old days it was simple. Mix together a few objectives, preferably the same as last year's with a sprinkling of new words, warm them thoroughly over a period of "consultation", season with suitably solemn text, add a measure of performance indicators and pop into the funding council. The only difficult bit was knowing how many students to add, given that this was always missing from the instructions on the packet.

These days, things are not so simple. Do you remember the "dry bones" song, in which the knee bone is connected to the leg bone and the leg bone connected to the ankle bone, now hear the word of the Lord? Well, that and Masterchef just about sum up the strategic planning exercise today. The ingredients are well known and most colleges will have them in their larder, just as I always seem to have half an onion in the fridge.

They include the following at least: self-assessment plan, departmental business plans, accommodation strategy, operating plan, internal audit annual plan, action plans from last year's self assessment, action plans from the last round of inspections, quality strategy, needs analysis, and marketing plan, all to be baked into a grand cake called a strategic plan.

All very necessary you might think, to manage an organisation responsible for millions of pounds of public money. And I might agree if, like other corporate businesses, our potential for strategic choices was limitless. In truth, however, no matter how well we manage the ingredients, what we bake is essentially the same sort of thing as before, just a little bit bigger or a little bit smaller, with a slightly different flavour.

I think I could handle it if it didn't all have to be so damned articulated. Everything, obviously, has to fit with everything else or none of it makes any sense.

So the departmental self-assessment must remember to include the comments of the inspectors and the action plan comments from last year's self-assessment at the same time as incorporating the latest thinking on accommodation from the college and bearing in mind new strategies on retention rates and external funding sources which have been promulgated in the draft strategic plan.

The accommodation strategy itself consists of options generated for the building stock by a consideration of the strategic aims, which have been formed from the needs analysis and self-assessment reports, building on the departmental business plans, which are produced from course team reviews and self-assessments which will, of course, feed into the appraisal system and the college's marketing plan. And we still don't know how many students will turn up next term.

Not only that, but we have to have widespread ownership of the whole exercise or the plan has no chance of becoming reality. So it all has to be done at course team level as well as by the caretakers and security staff. Naturally, the governors must be aware of proceedings at all stages and conduct their own self-assessment process as well, using information from all aspects of the college's strategic development. Naturally.

Pretty straightforward then. And there must be people who can do it and who do it well. Just as there are people who can appear on Masterchef and throw a gourmet meal together under enormous pressure. They probably go home each night and cook up a storm, too. Me, I settle for a sandwich and a mug of Horlicks.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield College

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