All we want is a pile of straw somewhere

20th December 2002 at 00:00
What a tease that Margaret Hodge is. First she says yes. Then she says maybe. Then it turns out that she, or rather her department, really meant no all along.

Margaret, in case you had forgotten, is "our" minister - the one in the education team who looks after all things to do with further and higher education. A week or two back she announced, in answer to a parliamentary question, that the Starter Home Initiative (more usually known by the forgettable acronym of SHI) was being extended to include further education lecturers.

The idea behind this scheme is to help those shock troops of the public sector - otherwise known as "key workers" - to buy their own homes in high-price areas such as London and the South-east.

Key workers had previously been defined as meaning nurses, police officers and schoolteachers. In other words, no room at the home-owning inn for the likes of us in further education.

Now, to steal a tag from the former Norman St John Stevas, the "Blessed Margaret" seemed to be saying different. When a Tory MP pointed out to her that key workers for the purpose of SHI did not extend to further education, she replied: "It does now."

Whoopee! But hold on a moment. It seems that the BM's "now" doesn't exactly mean now as you and I might understand it. Because it was not very long before her civil servants were fighting a desperate rearguard action to qualify it.

Ultimately, the best they could offer was that if there was any cake left over after the nurses, teachers and police officers had taken their slice, then lecturers might - just might - be able to pick up the crumbs. Or, to put it another way, bog off!

All of a sudden, as far as FE was concerned, the SHI had been terminated (I'll leave you to work out the new acronym).

Perhaps, though, it was always a bit presumptuous for us to expect to be treated the same as other public service workers. We know our place in FE, don't we?

But, if the BM's government cannot help us to live in our own house, how about a flat or a maisonette? A hut then? A hovel? A garden shed? Maybe, with Christmas drawing nigh, the Department for Education and Skills could run to a stall or two in a stable. But these are pipe dreams. With all the redundancies around nowadays, everyone knows that lecturing is no longer a stable job.

Instead, I would like to suggest an entirely new scheme of housing support specifically designed for the lower orders of public service: the rat catchers, refuse collectors and college lecturers. Under this, they would be guaranteed places in accommodation more suited to their station: low-rent bed and breakfasts; hostels for the indigent; and common lodging houses in the less salubrious parts of town.

When they have all been used up, maybe a few piles of straw could be laid out under selected railway bridges convenient for the nearest college. It would not cost a lot Mrs Hodge, and we would be ever so grateful.

Actually, I would be disappointed in more ways than one if FE lecturers were not to be considered as key workers. Because if that were the case then we would never get the army in to replace us when we go on strike.

And that would be a real pity. Just imagine the units who manned the green goddesses, pulling into college car parks in their 1960s' Ford Anglias and Morris Oxfords. Naturally they would be wearing the appropriate battle dress: those jackets from the "autumnal collection" that were once standard issue to all teachers - the male ones at least - complete with elbow patches and football buttons.

The new white boards would be a bit too hi-tech for these Tommy teachers, and anyway the lecturers would have chained their children to them to make sure they stayed out of commission for the duration. That means they would have to bring their own blackboards and chalk, and perhaps a slate or two for those students who inevitably leave their bags at home.

The curriculum would be interesting too. Not even the crackest of crack regiments could cover all the skills currently taught in your average FE college. In which case they would probably have to play to their strengths.

How long, I wonder, would it take our students to adjust to an unmitigated diet of drill, square bashing and kit inspections? And how would all those "wouldn't say boo to a goose" return-to-study types cope with being continually told they are a "'orrible little person, what are you?"

No doubt being able to strip down and grease a Bren gun will prove to be a very useful skill for A2 poetry students, but will they see it? Probably not, unless the instructor decides to cunningly combine it with that classic classroom standby, The Naming of Parts.

Still, it might do us all some good in the long run. Come the armistice, they would surely be falling over themselves to welcome their good old "not-so-key" worker lecturers back into the classroom again.

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