29th September 2000 at 01:00
Mike Austin, agony uncle, answers your queries

Beware nasty Nick

Q I am concerned that closed-circuit cameras have been installed in our college during the summer. They are at strategic points in all the buildings. The principal says they are 'for security reasons'. Does this sound plausible?

A You have been watching too much of 'Big Brother'. Security devices may be novel in your rural area, but they have been common in city colleges for years. However, if staff are being asked every week to nominate two colleagues to be sacked, with the final decision being left to a student vote, I should avoid the company of anyone called Nick.

Copy or not to copy Q As director of resources, I am concerned at the very high cost of photocopying. Are there any national benchmarks by which to judge whether our college is being extravagant?

A I assume that you have checked out what is being photocopied and by whom: the cost is as nothing to the cost of breaking copyright. Are you sure that people are not copying chapters from textbooks as an alternative to buying a set of the books? Have you thought of installing security cameras by the machines (see above)? Operating reprographics machines has always been a turn-on for equipment junkies: you may recall the recent claim by one such nerd to have regularly got through 14 pints of banda fluid a day.

Holiday lets Q I am fairly new to FE and find that the teachers whom I manage have a contractual requirement to undertake five days of self-directed professional activity. As far as I can see, these days always seem to occur during July and August. I am not sure that any such activity ever takes place, still less sure that any manager has ever tried to monitor it. Can you help?

A This is not uncommon. You may find that contracts also specify a number of self-directed hours per week during term time. Let me introduce you to one of the most widely worn fig leaves in FE:the idea was that lecturers had to give up some holiday and have a longer working week - as part of a new contract - without appearing to do either. Thus the concept of self-directed study was born: it is a cunning way of recognising the professionalism of lecturers, who can surely be trusted to work at home, while allowing managers to say that holidays have been reduced. Since you were not there at the time, you may not know that colleges that failed to get lecturers to sign new contracts were financially caned by a ory government which rather liked that kind of thing.

Fit for what?

Q I have been a principal for 18 months and have read the proposals for extending our programme of training. Will I have to enrol on a course?

A Not yet. The compulsory group are those aspiring to the job. Existing principals are merely being strongly encouraged. It does not make clear how old a codger you have to be before they stop twisting your arm. Not that there's anything wrong with the idea of such training. Quite the reverse. I think that all the proposals lack is a physical fitness module. For too long we have kept in shape by standing on our dignity, running down our competitors and jumping to conclusions.

Street cred

Q Are we responsible for the behaviour of our students away from the college site? We get regular complaints from local residents about students dropping litter, parking their cars in nearby streets and giving lip to residents bold enough to challenge them.

A The good news is that it's not just us. There were lurid reports in the responsible press over the summer about loutish behaviour by pupils from posh independent schools.

They had allegedly congregated in a small village in the South-west, and were doing unmentionable things on the beach, very loudly, all night. Their headteachers promised to give them a roasting this term.

In your case, how do you know the offenders are students? At least one, possibly two, of the crimes you mention is more regularly committed by staff here. Legally responsible, you are not; morally, maybe you are. Particularly if it happens during times when people are on their way to or from the college. What students (or staff) get up to when they go clubbing is their affair.

Be nice to your neighbours and keep reminding staff and students about their responsibilities as good citizens. That's all you can do.

Nudge the clerk Q The register of governors' interests is available in our college library. The other day I saw that one of ours has omitted an interest which is, I am sure, public knowledge. He is a very occasional part-time teacher at a neighbouring college. What should I do?

A In the old, competitive days I would have advised enrolling on his course and sabotaging it. Now that we are all friends, just give the clerk to your corporation a nudge, and feel a warm glow of self-righteousness.

Mike Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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