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Take pick'n mix route to mission statement culture

How did we ever function without the mission statement? Like Post-Its or Tipp-Ex, it is a precondition for survival nowadays. And not just for corporate bodies either. I can't even switch on my new computer to feed my cute little virtual cat Pinkie without the `Seven Steps to Fulfilment' wizard beckoning. Create your own personal mission statement, the wizard exhorts. Well anything's better than actually getting down to work, isn't it?

The wizard's programme promises to take me through decisions about values, principles and goals and if I need advice about what is important in life, I can call up a range of homilies from every sage from Aesop to Emily Dickinson.

Choose, the screen invites seductively, as you pick'n mix from a tasty selection of moral attributes, skills and personality traits. A bit of this, a bit of that, and finally there it is, a take away bag of delectables. A personal mission statement.

I'll take it. Don't bother to wrap. Ah, but there's a catch at the checkout - the small print you haven't read: before you begin planning all the things you want to be and do in life, there's one thing you should know. YOU ARE NOT IN CONTROL. Yes, well, working in further education I might have realised that.

Our college's mission statement aims for excellence and puts the individual at the centre of what we do. So that's settled, then. We know who we are, what we stand for and where we're going. It sounds a pretty decent mission statement, too. Old fashioned values, not overly-ambitious or too flashy. You see, we keep the small print firmly in mind.

Flick through our annual report and you'll see reflected there a college with a sound reputation, aware of its responsibilities to the community it serves, and committed to the overall development of the city.

Pretty respectable and responsible stuff. But wait a minute. That's not quite how others see us. We came in for some much-publicised criticism from a local MP this month. It gave us a delicious Warholian 20 minutes of fame as we tried for size being outrageously and dangerously experimental. Not a feeling you get every day when you work in further education. I can see the new signs for Old Glamis Road Campus. Something in flashing pink neon: Units-U-Like or Modules-R-Us.

We hit the newspaper headlines and grabbed regional television news coverage after criticism about course provision - in particular a new course offering tuition in comtemporary dance club culture.

We should be concentrating on the three Rs and training people for employment, not teaching youngsters how to rave, it was reported. And if we must have dance, Scottish country dancing with its formality and rules would offer a more appropriate vehicle.

It made good copy, and enlivened a typical regional TV news diet of crime and corruption with footage straight from Fame of our bright and bushy-tailed dancers showing how fit and healthy you need to be for contemporary dance.

The whole episode offered the college a media platform to underline the commitment to excellence outlined in our mission statement and the opportunity to plug our unique dance courses.

Yet it also revealed the difficult line we have been walking on since incorporation. Yes, we must forge our own futures but the small print is forever being waved in our face. And that small print isn't just a balance sheet. Increasingly, we are aware of the tension between traditional provision where demand is falling and new initiatives which respond to the demands of a changing society. Too readily, it seems, expansion and innovation are slapped down because we're a further education college and have to be kept in our place.

Knowing your place, knowing who you are, has never been more difficult. We are committed providers of vocational training and education but in a world where enforced leisure is increasing, we also have a responsibility to offer new opportunities for lifelong learning and development. Our leisure classes have proved popular with the community. Sometimes these classes offer a bridge to formal courses, but just as important is the opportunity it afforded the individual to develop skills, talents and interest with like-minded people.

These days it seems further education is involved in a continual process of self-discovery and reinvention. That requires imagination, innovation and an element of luck. And all that without much positive stroking going on. But to cling to old roles and old rules would see FE become increasingly marginalised.

We act against a background where there will always be calls for us to get back to our proper places, to obey the rules and stick to the well-rehearsed steps of the dance. But, armed with our mission statement we may dare to venture into new territory where the terrain is uncertain and the path has many turnings. Hey, that sounds good, doesn't it? A little bit of editing and that it will be just the sort of nifty little mission statement which will keep the pc Wizard happy. But first, shall we just feed that cute little cat?

Carol Gow is a lecturer in mediacommunication at Dundee College

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