Bring on the baboons

22nd September 1995 at 01:00
Those of us who spent all that money recently flying to exotic spots missed out on two accounts: we could have saved our cash and barbecued ourselves in the garden, and we may have overlooked the sensational report on sex education.

It seems that research has shown that boys who have had formal lessons in sex are less rather than more likely to seek practical, hands-on experience.

This news was presented as surprising, but it wasn't really. Any teacher can confirm that the best way to turn pupils off a subject is to teach it to them. If a thing is on the syllabus, it's off the agenda. Linguists, mathematicians and musicians have suffered particularly from this alienation effect, struggling to repair the damage caused by too much education.

You could argue that the secret of the success of the college sector curriculum is that most of it is new to the students, and that the process is so quick that there is no time for interest to flag before it's all over. But we might, nevertheless, learn from the report; compulsory classes in graffiti composition, say, or core studies in software tampering, might, by making them respectable, kill them off.

Of course, it is possible that as we sucked straws on silver beaches the FE curriculum was not uppermost in our minds. Home thoughts from abroad would probably have been speculations on what the next year will bring. A year ago unexpected cracks in the sector were starting to widen alarmingly, and often irreconcilable priorities within different colleges were placing audible strains on the various representative organisations.

Now it looks as though serious talking will begin to bring about a more coherent, more rational arrangement, in plain language, a merger between the Colleges' Employers' Forum and the Association for Colleges. I suspect that only those at the centre of these events find them the least bit interesting, others will simply urge a quick solution. So that will not be a preoccupation this coming year.

If this were China we would have an animal assigned to the next year, dog, rat, dragon or whatever. If we were to choose our own, especially for college managers, we might go for Year of the Giant Sloth, because we will spend much of it hanging by our fingertips, or the Year of the Hippopotamus, because we will be up to our necks in the mire, or even the Snow Leopard which is only rarely glimpsed. However I would go for the Baboon, not because it is smooth or over-modest, but in recognition of its famed managerial skills. All aspects of the baboon's lifestyle are meticulously organised, its relations with other creatures notably well controlled. For this will be the year when such qualities will be essential.

The relationship with governors, for example, will be a sensitive one. Governors are nervous about the Nolan committee of inquiry into standards in public life, not because they need to be, but because an atmosphere of suspicion and innuendo has been created, in which the wholly innocent begin to look over their shoulder. Have they asked the right questions? Are all their procedures open and transparent? How should they go about seeking to fill vacancies on the board? Now that doctors are being asked to blow the whistle on incompetent or deviant colleagues, should governors require professionals in colleges to do the same?

Managing all that, keeping all governors committed to the college, maintaining the necessary demarcation between the governors' responsibility for strategic direction and financial prudence and the principal's duty to make it all work; helping them to understand why the only compensation they are likely to get for hours of self-denial is a regular and ritual slagging off from NATFHE branch officers - all that will require delicacy of touch and teeth-gritting determination.

Then there is the management of money. Leaders of colleges are going to have to find new ways of squeezing quarts of activity from pints of funding. Here we are certainly being punished for success: the sector has, by and large, achieved efficiency savings over the past two years, now we have to do it again, and produce even more from even less.

That needs managing too. College staff's workloads will grow faster than the rewards for their efforts. They must be kept motivated by enthusiasm, not driven by fear. The ever-sleeker auditors, whose suits look smarter every time they come, need to be kept satisfied too, their portly fees top-sliced from even the most attenuated budget.

All this, of course, at a time when we shall have to pick our way through the industrial relations wreckage, caused by an explosive mixture of incompetence and mulish stubbornness, over which hangs a noisome whiff of self-interest.

Handling people who have been bruised by the events of the past two years will need great care. However, a well intentioned baboon should be able to make a decent fist of all that.

The trick will be to go further, to make the leap from management to leadership. In the immediate post-incorporation period, stability, consolidation and reassurance were the main requirements - all aspects of good management. The word management itself, after all, is widely used to mean no more than coping, reaching a minimum level of performance, as in "Can you manage?" - to use a domestic appliance, to get home alone, to descend the stairs, for example.

Leadership is something else, and includes setting a style and a tone for an institution; displaying a sense of direction; showing foresight and clear judgment. It is thus that colleges will begin to be differentiated from each other, to have defining characteristics, to be interesting places to work in.

That's what we will need this year, and those who should lead have an obligation to do it, those who are led a requirement to recognise it, and value it.

The skills of leadership are so important that we ought to teach them in schools, except that, like sex, making it legitimate would ruin its appeal. Better leave it until we're old enough to cope . . . or manage.

Michael Austin is the principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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