Can Biggles Bond save us?;College diary

23rd July 1999 at 01:00
In the central belt of Scotland an embattled further education college faces a life or death situation. Staff fight to keep their jobs and their sanity


Proposed redundancies 75; union meetings 4; stress levels (scale of 1-10) 9; rumours circulating about the imminent closure of college 100; number of troubleshooters sent in to sort out college 2 At the start of term, everyone is exhausted by 10 days' holiday and depressed at thought of return to teaching mode. Staffroom is organised chaos. Have you seen that descriptor? Is it Block 2 yet? Has anyone got any tea-bags? How was Tenerife? Has anybody seen my desk?

Troubleshooter calls meetings with staff in small, manageable groups. Sound management strategy or divide and conquer? Seems eminently plausible and decent, and insists on first name terms. The "good cop" bit over, he explains that our college is simply not viable in its present state and the only solution is to get rid of teaching staff. Also explains that while last month's independent report concluded 58 redundancies were required, in fact 75 are necessary. When protests die down, he plays his ace card: the alternative is closure of the college. It's a Catch 22. A no-win. Happy new year.


Proposed redundancies 75; union meetings 5; stress levels 9; rumours circulating 150 College is now apparently run by an HMI who fancies himself as James Bond, or perhaps Biggles. Headline in college newsletter reads "HMI parachutes in", penned by aforementioned Biggles Bond, upsets union and staff alike, as it appears to trivialise the very real prospects of unemployment for almost one quarter of teaching staff - he likes redundant people so much he's going to create 75 more of them. I wonder if he'll rest on the seventh day?

MARCH 1999

Proposed redundancies 58; union meetings 7; stress levels 10; rumours 200 Acting head of department retires. Acting head of department returns. Retires again. Returns as teaching staff due to staff shortage. Nobody laughs. New "acting HOD" appointed. Ten days later is informed will have to re-apply for own post.

Everyone appears to be "acting" rather than "being". Should we initiate our own version of the BAFTAs? "The award for best lesson plan goes to..."

A small concession has been made and redundancies reduced, coincidentally, to the original number recommended by the December report. Staff cuts have been divided democratically between departments, and the proposed loss of livelihoods are referred to as FTEs - full-time equivalents. Apparently those who are not "acting" as teachers are "equivalents" of teachers. Perhaps we would achieve better academic results if we had "equivalents" of students instead of the real thing? Kafka would have loved this place.

Our union secretary, Quality James, and chairperson, Magda, are preparing us for the imminent onslaught of redundancy consultations and attempting to instill some fighting spirit into us for our protest march at the end of the month. Mata Hari's here. She's the official union representative from Capital City that nobody's quite sure of.

APRIL 1999

Proposed redundancies 42; union meetings 9; stress levels 10; rumours 200 Principal announces he is leaving... but does not leave.

Staff return to work after Easter holidays, slightly cheered by apparent success of protest march. Hoarse from screaming "Tony Blair, shame on yoo; shame on yoo for turning bloo" and "they say cut back; we say fight back", we survey the landscape of an already depleted staffroom.

Lucy has given up the ghost and succumbed to "the package" after being threatened with compulsory redundancy. Eileen, the only sane person in the staffroom, has retired to tend to her horses. Des B, the professional part-timer, has been eased into accepting the offer-you-can't refuse by the fact that he was offered no classes. And Stevie has gone - a victim of stress. I realise I have lost (mislaid?) eight colleagues in the past year.

MAY 1999

Proposed redundancies 14; union meetings 4; stress levels 10; exhaustion levels 8; rumours 200 Staffroom chit-chat now resembles Monty Python's Four Yorkshiremen sketch:

"Ee, you're lucky, we used to dream of 24 hours' class contact... Wait till next year - you'll be coming to college before you get up in't middle o' night, cleaning college wi' toothbrush, beating yourself up wi' hammer, teaching 20 classes outside in snowstorm, dyin' of exposure, buryin' yerself in't pauper's grave, and then resurrectin' yerself next day to do it all again... and ye'll be glad o' it."

As if being saddled with extra teaching hours and a redundancy policy which fluctuates daily isn't enough, we are constantly hit with structural management changes. My department, currently run by Chas of the million dollar smile (but he's only acting) and hotly contested by Mrs Cunning, my line manager and communications guru, is to be split in two next month. The Titanic springs to mind - sinking fast in two pieces. But we don't have James Cameron's budget.

Speaking of watery graves, we have discovered an anomaly in the official figures for the redundancy pools. Certain departments are selected for "cost-efficient downscaling" and the names of all teachers in those departments go into a pool for potential selection - a variation on the selection interview, if you like. One would have thought that the deceased would not need to worry about redundancy, but the union found two dead ex-staff members on the list. I squirm at the thought of being in the same pool with a couple of corpses.


Proposed redundancies 5, 2.5 or perhaps 10; union meetings 4; stress levels 10; exhaustion levels 10, rumours 200 People are behaving rather oddly - presumably a result of having to apply again and again for their own jobs. Of course, those of us at the chalkface have always behaved oddly, and no one seems to notice. Another reason is the redundancy situation, which is very grave indeed. My main concern is whether I can afford a week in the Costa del Sol.

Situation looks less bleak for the majority, but worse for one section being bullied into accepting job losses. According to a recent union meeting (we know it is a union document only by the letterhead), management "cannot live with or accept lack of movement" in this section. "Lack of movement" is the current euphemism for self-sacking.

It appears that Mata Hari is living up to her nickname, using a union meeting to persuade the beleaguered section teachers to get into kamikaze mode by intimating that management will vent their spleen on the rest of us by reviving dormant redundancies if they do not self-destruct. Other sections, after initial solidarity, begin to close ranks... "It's not our fault. Couldn't they see it coming?" LAST DAY OF ACADEMIC YEAR

Divide and conquer: I'm sitting with Krystal finishing last-minute registers and arranging a celebratory night out. Mrs C and Chas-the-smile are now joint masters of the Titanic and are rejoicing by hosting two separate, simultaneous parties - not that it's a competition or anything. Bruce, the designer, is lugging enormous folios around, muttering unintelligible oaths about students handing in work on the last day. He'll find time to assess them - he's been down redundancy road before, and is the original blueprint for Python's Yorkshiremen.

Gibby bursts into the staffroom in mid-stream outrage mode, followed by his immediate boss: "...of course, what could you expect from this place," he says as the phone rings, "and we all know," he picks it up, "that it's Skinner's fault, isn't it?" He finally puts the receiver to his ear. "Ah... yes, Principal Skinner, em, yes, she's here..." he trails off and hands the phone to Magda. The rest of us erupt, hands clamped over mouths to no avail. Magda, unruffled, interrupts a discussion on her mobile to take the call from the soon-to-be ex-principal.

At this point, a student no one has ever seen enters the room and asks what he has to do to pass the course he has neglected to attend for the past six months. We all know the answer, but politeness prevents us from telling him.

"Party time," I announce. "Which one shall we go to first?" We troop downstairs towards the palpable atmosphere of stress-laced gaiety, and wonder if we'll ever troop down (or up) them again. Word is the building has been sold to a supermarket chain. I'm reminded of the scene in Chaplin's Modern Times, in which the tramp's foreman gets trapped in his own machine and, on hearing the steam whistle, merely asks for his lunch. Cogs in a wheel, the expendable FTEs, expendable for the greater good of someone in the Scottish Office with figures to tote, bank books to balance and acronyms to justify.

I also remember those who have gone: the 27 who will not teach here again, the others who will have to teach (and earn) less. I don't think any of us know how to feel about that. So, come on, let's have a glass or two, unless you're driving of course. We've still got jobs. At least for now. And that's all that matters. Isn't it?

'Jane Doe'

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