5th May 2000 at 01:00
Mike Austin, agony uncle, answers your queries

Not puffing likely

Q I am a confirmed and unrepentant smoker. My college has now issued a decree saying that if anybody is caught smoking inside the building, disciplinary action will be taken. Can they do this?

A I thought that all colleges had done this years ago. Are you sure that you have been paying attention to announcements about a smoking policy? Perhaps you were behind the bikeshed when it was all going on. So, yes they can. If there is a college rule and you break it you are in trouble, whether it's about smoking, walking on the grass or parking in the space reserved for the principal.

Tune in to the grapevine

Q I work in a college which seems to be reasonably secure financially, hits its targets pretty well and had a good inspection last time around. I am ambitious for promotion but don't want to find myself in a college that will go pear-shaped. How can I tell which colleges are at risk?

A Unless you are very good at reading between the lines of annual reports, save yourself the time and money required to send for them. Inspection reports are a better guide, but they date very quickly. The local press won't help. The only sure way is the one that sounds the dodgiest: listen to the chat. There is not one collapsed college which caused any surprise when it went down, not one embarrassing inspection report which was unexpected.

All eyes on the US model

Q I am starting some research on how British colleges compare with their equivalents abroad. Given that my budget is limited, can you suggest where I should go to see some relevant comparators?

A British or English? The Scots have a somewhat different system with a distinctive qualifications structure. You could try to see what they are up to. As a general rule of life, the Scots are ahead of us on education.

Helpful comparators overseas are quite hard to find. The French and the Germans have institutions which are more specialised than ours, the Dutch are busy collapsing scores of colleges into a handful (following what they believe to be the English model), and can anybody name 10 famous Belgian colleges? In many ways the Amercan community college is still the closest model. They taught us a lot about student services and the FEHE nexus, are quite strong on information and communications technology and, in places, have got open and distance learning sewn up.

Let's broaden young minds Q Can I ask you a question which I dare not put to my principal? Do you think that Curriculum 2000 is a bit of a con? Does anybody actually want it?

A Curriculum 2000, a name with a rather obvious sell-by date, is the latest attempt to broaden the curriculum for 16 to 19-year-olds. All previous attempts have failed, but, as they say in ISA advertisements, past performance is no guide to the future.

Most educationists like the idea of breadth; most 16-year-olds don't. Colleges that are hoping to recruit lots more bright and eager students in September will need to come up with a better sales pitch than "Broaden your mind, you know it makes sense".

No, it's not a con. In fact it's rather a superior model being marketed to entirely the wrong people. Tell your principal.

Alphabet soup and no pay

Q As personnel manager in a medium-sized manufacturing company, I have been nominated by my boss to become a member of the board of governors of the local college. He doesn't seem very clear about what is involved. Can you help?

A Think of yourself as a non-executive director. It is, frankly, a pretty thankless task for which you do not get paid. Governors have to know enough about the college to be able to set its strategic direction.

You also have to keep a very close eye on the money because you are responsible for the financial health of the place. You will find meetings can be dominated by clever individuals who come out with impenetrable jargon and more initials than a plate of alphabet soup.

The pluses are that you become involved in a complex and interesting organisation which really does change people's lives, that you can see public money being spent to good purpose and you occasionally get to meet students. If things do go badly wrong, you and the other governors will get the blame; if the college flourishes, the principal and his or her cronies will claim the credit.

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