Anthem for narks in the staffroom

24th July 1998 at 01:00
As I got drawn in, very reluctantly, to watching the World Cup on television, I began to formulate a theory about national anthems. The prelude and the postlude to football games are always more interesting than what goes on in the match itself, which is a set of predictable variations on a very old and rather dull theme.

No, the best bit is watching the crowd and players sing the anthem for my tentative theory holds that the tune determines how they will play. "Flower of Scotland" is all tearful hopelessness on a field far from home; "God Save the Queen" foretells with awful accuracy the uptight, predictable patterns of English football; whereas the "Marseillaise" still carries the sounds of the excited revolutionary mob.

That reminded me of Joseph Fouche (1759 - 1820), not only a prominent figure in the French Revolution, but also a principal of a college. He has two claims to fame. The first is that he adapted his opinion to suit whatever was the popular view at the time. During the revolution this meant changing his mind as often as his shirt, from monarchist to republican and back again, from cautious reformer to blood-crazed executioner.

The equivalent in our more recent and less bloody revolution would have been a person who argued passionately for the retention of local authority control of colleges before incorporation, and then stormed the Bastille of County Hall demanding freedom when it was obvious incorporation was irresistible.

A modern-day Fouche would then have dashed-off inflammatory tracts in favour of all-out competition in the interests of good service to the public, calling for the resignation of those who stood in the way of progress, and then, scenting the new breeze, would have marched to the tune of collaboration and co-operation in the interests of protecting the public purse.

Pro-convergence, anti-convergence; predatory franchising, confinement to catchment areas: pro-Ward, anti-Ward, the opportunities for opportunism have been rich and varied. I expect we could all name a Fouche or two, not all of them in colleges.

The second thing for which Joseph Fouche is remembered is his creation of a secret police force, largely made up of civilians, who provided him with enormous amounts of detailed information which he used for his own purposes. He had an eye and an ear at every keyhole in the land, knew when people came, what they did when they were there and where they went next.

The infamous operators of more modern police states were happy to acknowledge their debt to Fouche in particular and French further education in general. It is said that Fouche learned his surveillance skills while principal of the Oratory College in Nantes, an establishment noted for its piety and scholarship.

Some of the more lurid accounts of FE colleges which have made the wrong sort of news lately tell of narks in every staffroom, deep throats on the management team, and grasses among the governors. Fouche would have been proud. There have been colleges where things have gone badly wrong, where the college aristocracy has lost touch with the Sans Culottes, and where proud heads have rolled. Sure-footed Fouche had his own ideas about mere wrongdoing as opposed to political misjudgment. As he told the parliamentary lobbying companies of his day: ''It (managerial indecision and incompetence) is more than a crime, it is a political fault.'' He made it through to a comfortable pension and retirement in the sun. The history of language does not adequately record when the antidote to Foucheism first began, but the only defence against high-handed, repressive and arbitrary decision-making is to speak out loud and early, or, as we have learned to say, blow the whistle. In our British colleges we shall be required to have arrangements for the issue of whistles and training in their use written into our charters.

There were more than a few whistle-blowers at the various French stadia used for the World Cup. They might have thought they were protesting at the referee's high-handed, repressive and arbitrary decisions. They were, in fact, unconsciously celebrating the life of a man who, like the French team, had survived, thanks to self-belief and not a little luck, to enjoy a happy ending.

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