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

Fears of a clown

Q I am a deeply stressed DFEE official trying to operate in a post-16 world, despite continued sector demarcations. Should I stick it out or run away to the circus waving an Individual Learning Account voucher?

AIf you think you can escape from FE by joining a circus, think again. Some colleges offer courses to itinerant circus folk; some also teach circus skills. As a DFEE official, you might get some accreditation of prior learning for skills such as juggling - with statistics - riding two horses at once or tightrope-walking. If you wave an ILA voucher about, you may be greeted with the hysterical laughter normally reserved for the pratfalls of a clown, or you may be shown the door (see below).

Caped crusader

Q One of our teachers cycles to work every morning. He makes the point that a) he is not damaging the environment b) he is keeping fit and is thus less likely be off sick c) he is not taking up a space in our congested car park.

He has now requested a waterproof-clothing allowance as a reward for good behaviour. Should I give him one?

A Not unless you also intend to hand out boots to those who walk to work, and elbow and knee pads to people who use those high-speed scooters, or roller blades. Colleges fund students' learning, not individuals' lifestyles.

Frankly speaking Q As a senior student administration officer, I have a long queue of very angry students wanting to know why they can't use their Individual Learning Accounts for the courses on which they enrolled some weeks ago, and which they were told would entitle them to financial support. What's gone wrong?

AIndividual Learning Accounts are a classic example of a brilliant idea hobbled by ludicrous timescales, clumsy administrative procedures and policy U-turns. A bit like FE itself. There were some very successful pilot schemes run by training and enterprise councils, but the national scheme, contracted to Capita, has left colleges caught up in a web of contradictory instructions, but being blamed by Capita for all the frustration. Students are now said to be walking away from FE, perhaps forever, turned off by their negative experiences. The person to harangue is Frank Hegarty at the DFEE in Moorfoot, Sheffield. Do it now: you'll feel better.

Elvis studies

Q In the light of the news that one in three of the adult population in this country has experimented with drugs at some point in their lives, should we not be asking candidates for posts at ur college to answer a question about this on the application form?

A Well, you could, but what would you do with the information? Would a Yes bea recommendation or bar to appointment? Apart from the bizarre Anne Widdecombe, most of the Conservative front bench has evidently been out to lunch at some time, and some of them still are, it seems. Are they the sort of people you want in your college?

If you are going to ask applicants questions about drugs, you need to think which third of your senior management team own a packet of Rizla, and who on the corporation has a set of beads and a flowery shirt in the wardrobe. While you are about it, why not slip in a question on Elvis? After all, a fair proportion of the population believes he still lives, so if you want your college to reflect the community, you'd better make sure you are up to strength.

Suit the sociologist

Q There is a lot of noise at the moment about the Human Rights Act. All sorts of claims are made about its implications. What are they?

A The first thing to realise is that there will be a lot of well-fed lawyers with smiles on their faces. The big legal firms are putting on highly priced events to introduce us to the new legislation - and to make our flesh creep. But if you go along to one of these events, you are told that until matters are tested in the courts, we won't know how the Act, which was introduced in October, will be applied. In the meantime, do nothing that could, however implausibly, be interpreted as a requirement for people to lead their lives in any particular way. Be careful about dress codes, for example. If you instruct your sociology lecturers to wear jeans and sloppy sweaters, you may be infringing their civil liberties. Let them wear suits and ties like everyone else in your college.

Carry on U-turning

Q I recently attended an FEFC briefing for staff. I may have dropped off momentarily, but I'm sure I heard a senior FEFC person say that colleges should not discontinue franchising in 2000 - 2001. Is this yet another U-turn?

A When is a U-turn not a U-turn but a policy clarification? The FEFC, desperate to hand over a sector in rude health, is equally desperate that colleges should not miss their targets and then fail to meet the Government's expectations of a further 700,000 students. So the message is very much Carry on Franchising. Such a pity that neither Kenneth Williams nor Sid James is around to make the film version.

Mike Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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