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Rich rewards of multi-skilling the disaffected

Gradgrind takes a look at the triumphs and travesties of college life

Stott arrived bright and eager to begin. "I responded immediately I received your call!" he told Minder, the new head of flexible studies.

Two lecturers on extended sick leave had to be replaced. A part-time troubleshooter was needed.

"Phone the agencies," the principal had told Minder. Five agencies in the market-place were busy driving down lecturers' pay. Stott signed all five and played them at their game, driving the rates up.

He stood in the college staff room and eyed the noticeboard. Each day, rooms were allocated by computer, such was the pressure on space since the Further Education Funding Council efficient usage audit.

There was his name and beside it the destination: X Block, room 10. "Where's X Block?" he asked a wizened lecturer.

"Demolished last year," came the reply. "Don't put too much faith in that list. It's never accurate and even allocates the old abattoir which existed in the agriculture centre before it was gutted," he said as the principal passed.

He scowled and left, shaking his head and muttering: "Not long now. When I retire, I'll buy a yacht and call it Lump Sum."

Stott turned to Minder. "What exactly am I teaching?" "You're to multi-skill the disaffected and under-achieving in cross-industry capabilities."

Stott met his students in the college canteen, where they always gathered since they, like everyone else, hadn't the foggiest where they should be. Their enthusiasm remained undimmed through the nervous breakdowns of two over-optimistic part-timers. "Well now, keen to get work, are we? Hands-on experience and all that? Success on the horizon?" Silence.

Later that term, Stott congratulated himself on how the course had shaped up and how he had risen to the challenge of preventing the bright-eyed funding units from deserting the college. This involved maximum out-placement in practical learning situations.

Stott's assessments were illuminating, even if other members of staff queried the value of the course itself.

Some students felt the employers were taking a teeny- weeny bit of a liberty with them, he explained in a debriefing to Minder.

His report logged how:

* a lad wanted to become an ambulance driver but felt that to be put in charge of the hospital dustbins was hard to justify;

* a female trainee caterer felt stuffing doughnuts all day, opening mail and answering outstanding correspondence before production staff arrived, was cheap labour;

* a trainee barman wondered why he was asked to paint a fence which surrounded the pub car park.

Stott added: "My most outstanding trainee was pleased to be a trainee locksmith and boasted that his housebreaking skills had improved tremendously.

"I was reminded of this one evening at the end of term, as I stood in the pouring rain in the college car park and discovered that I had lost my car keys. As the lad approached, I grew philosophical and realised that the course was worthwhile in many unexpected ways."

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