In the free transfer of the season Mike Austin, Agony Uncle of The TES College Manager has brought his monthly column to FE Focus
Q Our principal used to bang on about Marks and Spencer as the ideal model for colleges. He admired their customer-focus, their ability to get people to pay lots of money for fairly ordinary goods, and their air of self-confidence. Recently, he has stopped mentioning them. As an ambitious person, should I stop shopping there?
A Most people already have. Your principal may have started to worry that your college has, like M and S, begun to look dowdy and complacent, and he may have noticed that the high-street chain, like the Dome, Arsenal FC and now the England team itself, has been put in the hands of a foreigner. Will yours be the first UK college to follow this fashion?
Q Our college debating society recently gave overwhelming support to a motion which called for the end of the monarchy and the declaration of a republic. Shortly afterwards the college received a letter from the DFEE declaring a day's holiday in 2002 to mark the Queen's Jubilee. I would feel disloyal to the students' views if we closed the college for the day, and disloyal to the Crown if we didn't. Can you advise, please?
A To ease your troubled mind, get the students to debate the motion: "This house would prefer a day's holiday to a republic". If they vote for the holiday, give it to them. If they vote for the republic give them two days off as a reward.
Q I was trapped on a long-delayed train recently, and was surprised to be offered a learning pack by a young man with a college badge on his lapel. It was for a three-hour course on time-management, to be done there and then. Was this legitimate?
A It sounds like a clever idea. Presumably all those who took up the offer would have the same address, such as: Carriage F, The Sidings, Epsom, and if your salesman was from the nearest college that would count as widening participation. Zero drop-out would be guaranteed. National skills levels would rise. A warm glow would be felt by all. Incidentally, isn't it a helpful coincidence that the FEFC admits three-hour courses into the funding arrangements, and then rail companies introduce new timetables which increase all journeys to at least that length of time. Joined-up thinking at last.
Fraud with feeling?
Q I am the studentwelfare officer in a college which is involved in an education maintenance awards pilot. It is mainly about providing free home-to-school or home-to-college transport. The trouble is that take-up is very low, mainly because the forms students or their parents have to fill in are so complicated. I would like to bend the rules a bit and fill in the forms myself for particularly needy cases which would definitely benefit from the scheme if they applied themselves. Should I do this? It could be described as helping money to go to where it was meant to go.
A It could also be described as fraud. Just think about what is going on here. Making forms complicated so as to confuse the punter is an old Florida trick. If few students complete the forms, the DFEE will conclude that transport is not a big issue, declare the scheme a success, and return the money to a happy Treasury.
Doing a Dimmock
Q I have been watching TV programmes like Ground Force, and it occurred to me that there would be a market in FE for a similar sort of operation. College is in a mess; principal does nothing; senior colleagues lack support; inspection looms. Principal is packed off to training courseconference. Hit-squad arrive, transform the college in 48 hours. Principal returns, is amazed and delighted (and takes credit). Could this catch on?
A You may be on to something. At the moment, didn't-we-do-well colleges with top grades hold dissemination events to spread the good word. A better model might be for them to form teams which would come to colleges for a lightning transformation. They could grub out old systems, replant with vigorous new ones, put up trellis to conceal the rubbish and lay a new, flagged path to lead visitors towards the best areas. As long as the neighbours kept mum, it might work.
Q We have been asked by one of the mobile phone companies to allow them to put a relay mast on the roof of the college. They will pay a fair rent for it. Should we allow this?
A I am surprised that you have not been asked before: the mobile phone companies have been trying to do deals with colleges with high roofs for months now. What you do is: satisfy yourself that the alleged risk to health caused by the radio waves is just scaremongering, work out how to ensure a positive impact on the college's local reputation, find out how much you can screw out of them, and then tell them to get lost.