A health warning for bosses

9th September 2005 at 01:00
I've just had an email from a lecturer I've known for several years, letting me know he'd just resigned without another job to go to.

A real craftsman, he started in his college as a lecturer more than 12 years ago. Because he was good at his job, he worked his way up or was reshuffled until, like many who stick it out in FE, he found himself in middle management.

The reason he gave for resigning was disillusionment with the bureaucracy - the time-wasting paperwork, report-writing and pointless meetings. Many lecturers, and not just the old lags, will empathise, knowing the deep demoralisation that characterises working life in FE today.

If you came into the job to pass on knowledge and skills and increasingly find you are wasting time on management activities, it's easy to feel like chucking it in and getting a life. Dealing with red tape is the job of managers and FE is over-brimming with "managers" and "leaders".

The cynics explain this away through the "cash nexus". To earn more than Pounds 30,000, you have to become one or the other. With the cash comes the title, but this hardly explains why the label is so common.

In the curious "business speak" of many colleges, almost every employee is a manager of something - be it learning support, the curriculum, quality, catering or cleaning. Every lecturer has a key role in "managing learning" and a goal for students is often "to manage their own learning".

In the wider workforce, gold badges come with the title. Next time you go into any business, shop or pub you will be addressed by staff labelled "customer care manager", "service manager", "catering manager"I the list goes on. The cheap device of labelling routine work "managerial" is an obvious bid to cover up low pay with a fictitious status. In a time when calls for bans and proscriptions have replaced open debate, it is surprising that no one has called for restrictions on the use of this classist term "manager".

With no resistance, even from the Queen's English Society, the ideological triumph of managerialism has transformed us all into managers. But the real problem is not that no one is fighting a terminological class struggle in FE, but the loss of the focus on knowledge and skills that was what would-be students wanted. Once that has gone, all you can do is "manage".

Managers manage lecturers. lecturers manage students, and the hope is that students will manage themselves. Within a decade FE has moved from "youth containment" (no jobs) to "self-management" (no knowledge or skills). It's not just that there are more chiefs than Indians, as people used to say: the disillusionment comes with the work that being a "manager" requires.

At first, one attraction of management is that while paperwork, reports and meetings take time and require some effort, it is undemanding next to the job of inspiring students to acquire knowledge and skills. Wasting your own and others' time has a certain charm if you get paid enough - and even if you don't, it may seem like a dull but not a bad job if it takes you away from the whiteboard for a while. But whatever the rewards, after a time managing and being managed is as unsatisfying for lecturers as it is for students. We may all remember a good teacher. Who will remember a good manager?

It's worth remembering that the manager is a relatively new beast in the FE zoo. Some of us can recall other more majestic and mythical creatures in the bestiary. Visiting a large "technical college" a few years ago, I went into the "learning resources" centre (what the library had become) and found on one office door the sign: "Peter Smythe, senior lecturer".

Senior lecturers then really were a resource worth having - they knew a thing or two about their subject or craft. Which brings me back to my friend's resignation and the real reason he quit his job.

It was not managerialism but education that drove him out. He'd been doing a master's degree in further and adult education, and the time spent reading, thinking and discussing FE made him realise what had been lost.

Looking critically at government inquiries into what FE is about, and asking whether there were "skills" that the economy needed, convinced him that being a manager was like keeping a lid on Pandora's box in case the students discovered they were being "managed" rather than taught.

He, perhaps exceptionally, had been taught and, unlike those who say learning is fun and can enhance your life, it had ended his career and possibly damaged his personal life. He no longer has a job, but he has intellectual and moral integrity. As John Stuart Mill said of those who would manage the learning of his day, in order to add to the sum of human pleasure, "Better Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied".

Rather than manage and support "learners", we should get back to teaching and put health warnings on college brochures: "Education can be bad for you and courses may seriously disturb your mind, change your behaviour and upset your beliefs and relationships." I'll take 20, please - full strength!

Dennis Hayes is head of the Centre for Professional Learning at Canterbury Christ Church college

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