A third-world conspiracy

27th January 2006 at 00:00
Let's face it, admitting you were wrong is never easy. But sometimes in life you just have to own up to the fact that you've made a dodgy call. In my defence, I'd like to point out that it's not only me: thousands of others in the world of further education have surely made the same mistake.

My error? It's simple. In my naivety, I have assumed that the increasingly crap deal dished out to teachers in colleges over the past decade and a half has been unsystematic and unplanned; a product of drift and neglect rather than any devious intent.

But now the scales have fallen from my eyes. It really is conspiracy rather than cock-up. And you have to admire how they've done it - across five parliaments and two governments - pushing ever on towards the logical end of their policy.

The final piece of the jigsaw fell into place as soon as I saw the FE Focus headline: "Colleges may hire lecturers abroad". According to David Hunter, who heads yet another of those FE quangos you've never heard of - Lifelong Learning UK in this instance - 135,000 new teachers will have to be recruited in the next five years - almost 50 per cent again of the current total.

And where precisely will these thousands of new bods be coming from? "We may have to look outside the European Community," said Mr Hunter, given the paucity of likely takers in Britain and her near neighbours. Apparently, he said all this to an education committee of the House of Commons. What they said back to him wasn't recorded, but presumably it was something like:

"Good," or "At last!" Because surely what he was telling them was the logical conclusion of all that has happened in the last 15 years - since incorporation in fact. First, drive the conditions and wages of FE teachers down to third-world levels. Then fill up all the vacancies thus created from the third world itself.

Mr Hunter didn't spell out exactly which countries we might look to for our next generation of teachers and trainers but, as he drew parallels with the NHS, it's pretty clear the sorts of places he had in mind. Maybe we should just start at the beginning of the alphabet and work our way systematically through. They probably know when they are well off in Andorra and Australia, but what about the likes of Albania and Afghanistan? Problem is, will they be prepared to take the cut in pay and status? Will they be up to the unrelentingly long hours?

Maybe anticipating such difficulties, Mr Hunter further floated the idea of training up our incomers from scratch. Now there's a thought. Why not kill two birds with one stone and direct all those poor so-and-sos found shivering in the backs of refrigerated lorries at Dover directly into FE? Instead of shipping them off to detention centres in the middle of nowhere, we could send them straight into a classroom at the University of Greenwich. There wouldn't be such a thing as illegal immigrants any more - just prospective teachers.

But wait, maybe there's an even better way. Why not take a leaf out of the book of those doyens of outsourcing, the call centres? Rather than bringing the teacher to the class, why not take the class to the teacher? Just think of the savings. The class may be in Ealing, but the staff room could be in Darjeeling. We have the technology after all. A simple sound system and a web camera at either end and you're off.

All right, so maybe those teachers several time zones away may be a bit lacking in the local knowledge department. But that can be an educative experience in its own right. I called directory enquiries the other day in order to get the number of my local swimming pool. The pool is only about a mile from where I live, but the call ended up somewhere on the west coast of Ireland. The young man on the other end had a charming Irish lilt to his voice, but only the haziest idea of geography "across the water."

"It's in Walthamstow," I told him.

Pause. "I don't have a Walthamstow," came the reply.

"It's a borough in London."

Pause. "I don't have a Borough either."

"No, Walthamstow - sorry Waltham Forest - it's just one of many London boroughs."

Pause. "So how am I meant to find the right one if there's lots of them?"

"No, you don't understand. They're all called different things. Try 'London Borough of' and then look down the list until you come to the Ws."

Pause. "The double ewes?" he said sheepishly.

"Oh God. Look, Waltham Forest - it's, you know, like a big parish."

Pause. "Paris? I thought a minute ago you said you wanted London."

We carried on like this for another 10 minutes. It was when I got on to Middlesex and the 1964 local government re-organisation that the line went dead. I never did get my number, but surely he must have learnt something?

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