Charge of the enlightened brigade;Comment;Opinion;FE Focus

24th April 1998 at 01:00
For you, Tommy, the education war is only just beginning...First it must be understood that what follows has nothing at all to do with teaching in further education.

Tommy Atkins joins the Army. He is young and fit and desperate for a sight of the enemy. But hold on Tommy. There's so many things to do, things to know, before you can get to that.

Tommy is given a rifle. He thinks he'll give it a little try out, and immediately raises it to his shoulder. This produces guffaws from the old hands and a ticking off from his sergeant. Actually firing the thing can only come after Tommy has mastered his three instruction manuals on shooting and the Army's policy on guns, a copy of which he must carry with him at all times.

Next Tommy is given a tin helmet and a set of body armour, closely followed by a gas mask and a chemical warfare suit. Each of these, you understand, comes with its own set of instructions to be read, learnt and carried about his person at all times.

The Army don't want Tommy getting lost with all that valuable equipment, so they also give him a set of maps and a compass; and for night exercises there's his night sights, to be carried in a case over his shoulder along with his binoculars and a copy of the Army's three-volume policy on magnification.

Tommy's sagging a bit under all this weight by now, and he sags a bit more after he gets his own spade to carry, three induction sessions on how to use it and the regiment's new orientation document on digging.

Tommy reckons he's ready for anything now, but he's still not prepared for the dozen or so computer print-outs his sergeant hands him with orders to "get checking". It seems the Army has invested in the latest hardware (in order to make their soldiers more productive), but someone must still check all the figures the new admin boys have come up with, and who better to do this than those (as it were) in the front line ...

For days Tommy struggles with his print-outs. When finally he's finished, he's just about to set off in search of the enemy when Sarge says hang on, because he hasn't filled out his appraisal forms yet, and what about his targets? Now you're talking, says Tommy; only he's a little crestfallen when it's explained to him that these targets have nothing to do with guns and neither will he until he's filled out all the relevant paperwork, which, naturally is in triplicate and must be carried with him at all times ...

What we must be careful not to forget of course, is that none of this has any connection whatsoever with teaching in colleges of further education.

It's at this point that his superior officer tells Tommy about the new line management scheme. Now apparently when the sergeant tells Tommy what a horrible little man he is, Tommy must tell the sergeant how that makes him feel and what his plans are to be less horrible in the future. This scheme of course has its own set of manuals which he'll have to carry with him in the field in case one of the Army's new army of inspectors pops up from behind a bush and wants to give his "forms and procedures" a thorough going over.

Poor Tommy. All these new things to think about, not to mention the weight of them bearing down on his manly shoulders. But still, perhaps now he'll be able to get on with the job he signed up for. Well yes ... and no. Because now it seems that the Government has decided it isn't getting value for money from the armed forces any more, and is introducing a five-year schedule of defence cuts (code named: Operation Efficiency Gain). This means Tommy's expensive gun must be taken from him and replaced with a replica weapon that weighs twice as much, and a three-day course on how to shout BANG very loudly.

Tommy thinks about complaining, but the new value-for-money Army doesn't like whingers, so instead Tommy starts to struggle out onto the battlefield. But not so fast Tommy. How can you think about fighting until you've had the quality of your soldiership checked out? Tommy's sergeant (now re-designated his quality manager) takes him through the procedures. Of course he'll need the full set of documents, designed to slip easily into his new "quality rucksack", which only weighs 10 pounds and will sit nicely on top of all those other bits and pieces that today's modern soldier absolutely must have at his fingertips...

At last Tommy's made it into battle. True he's crawling on all fours, but at least he's got there. Unfortunately for Tommy though, his enemy isn't like him. He works for a very unenlightened employer, and all they've seen fit to give him is a gun and a short course in how to use it.

Seeing Tommy down there in the dust his enemy decides the only kind thing is to put him out of his misery, and promptly puts a bullet through his poor overtaxed brain.

So that's the end of Tommy. But how lucky it is for all who teach in colleges that his story has nothing whatsoever to do with lecturing in further education.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a London FE college

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