Bad enough to sell papers

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
Good news is no news. It does not sell papers because it runs counter to our experience of life and to our natural desire to see others worse off than ourselves.

"West Bromwich Albion beat the drop" sold a few copies in West Brom High Street a week or so ago, when a local football team managed to avoid relegation, but "Last-minute freak goals sink Albion" would have sold out nationwide. Every Wolves supporter would have bought two copies.

"Local man wins lottery" has us yawning with indifference and reaching for the minutes of the last audit committee for some real entertainment. "Local man killed by lightning strike on way to collect huge lottery cheque" would have us hugging ourselves with schadenfreude.

For many of us, the ultimate story would be "Global warming incinerates Beckham's cash and sets France on fire. Planet to be destroyed next week."

That's why so many of the freebie glossy puff magazines which arrive in my in-tray never get read. They are unremittingly up-beat. They scream the most unlikely successes at me. Every minor achievement is turned into a major world-beating success story. "Solihull celebrates membership surge", from a local Chamber of Commerce freebie, did not have me rushing for the champagne. Nor did "Hats off to Adele" or "Local firm wins Queen's Award for Industry". I mean, who hasn't?

In true grumpy old man fashion, the only story I read was headed: "Survey finds confidence faltering across region". Great word, "faltering". In this hugely expensive piece of self-promotion, even the collapse of car-giant Rover (what a headline) is turned into good news about the Chamber's responsiveness in heading off a crisis.

I would say good luck to them but, according to their magazine, good luck is the only sort they ever experience.

What I cannot understand is why FE is not on the front page of every newspaper every day of every week. We have enough bad news to depress a whole host of game-show presenters.

Take, for example, the bulletin from the Association of Colleges, sent out a week ago - six front-page bullet points, each announcing a bigger disaster than the last.

It was a riveting read, until the implications sank in. Here is a sample:

"The Department for Education and Skills has not given the Learning and Skills Council enough money to deliver college targets." Surely the Mirror could make something of that. "Government cash crisis scuppers student hopes", for example, or "Kelly's heroes hamstrung by quango".

It gets better: "LSC's funding allocations process lacks transparency, predictability and consistency. The national funding methodology is rapidly ceasing to exist". Now the LSC chief executive is a former newspaper man.

Surely he could make a humdinger out of that? "Quango chief quits in closed door cash deals scandal" perhaps? Or "watchdog cries foul as cash-strapped college bosses sink their own boat".

If you like your bad news straight, then the AoC delivers: "Revenue costs of creating skills academies means further detriment to existing adult learning provision".

Real bad news junkies like me prefer: "New jobs for bureaucrats kill off skills training hopes for thousands". Or, perhaps "Workshops close to pay for talkshops".

One last one. The AoC says: "There is a wide gap between the promises in Success for All and Trust in FE and the current position". We could hardly go for "Government breaks promise and tells porkies" because the last election result proved we are prepared to accept that.

"School cats lap up college cream" might appeal to a nation of animal lovers, but sends too positive a message about the benefits to schools. A government breaks its pledge, adult training budgets are cut and schools are favoured over colleges. Using the usual description of FE as the underdog: "Chancellor screws Cinderella" is as close as I can get on this one.

If we cannot get our message across when we have a virtual monopoly on bad news, things are not looking too good. I think the next stage has to see the AoC chief executive dressed as Batman scaling the walls of number 10 to get into Tony's bedroom while his deputy, Robina, rams the Batmobile into Gordon's limo.

Even then, Alastair Campbell would spin Tony and Gordon as the heroes and the headlines would read "Dynamic duo foil college chiefs' comic caper".

Even being called a "national disgrace" by someone who should know better in the Office for Standards in Education did not register beyond The TES.

But the Foster review is in progress. We could yet get headlines so perverse we will long for anonymity.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield college

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