Direction of French doctors led me to the right to challenge

11th September 2009 at 01:00
Now this really is the last of the summer whines. In a way, it's also a tale of two cities, two cultures

In France this August, I had to consult a doctor - at least it said docteur on the door. But when I got inside it was like no doctor's I had ever visited before.

For a start, there wasn't a receptionist in sight. How could a medical man possibly function without a brace or two of vinegar-swallowers to shield his calls and filter out malingerers? And who was going to deal with all the paperwork that a holidaymaker like myself would inevitably bring trailing in his wake?

More astonishingly there was no appointment system. Patients just came in, sat in the waiting room and went through for treatment in the order they arrived. When the doctor was ready, he came to us - shaking the hand of the next in line before leading him or her off to his consulting room.

When my turn came - about half an hour after arrival - the same procedure ensued. A quick bonjour, a handshake and into the inner sanctum. The fact that he'd never clapped eyes on me before didn't matter. No forms, no fuss. I was treated just like anyone else.

His English was only marginally better than my French, so we communicated in a sort of jolly Franglais. My problem was an itchy and sore mouth. "Alors," he said soon as he got some light on the problem, "champignons!"

Most of my French vocabulary revolves around things you can eat or drink, so this was one word I knew. It seemed I had a nasty case of mushrooms in the mouth! We kicked the term around for a minute or two before coming up with the rather more prosaic diagnosis of "fungal infection". He took my name and address, printed a prescription, relieved me of EUR20 and off I went.

No wonder, I thought, we've spent so much of the last thousand years fighting the French. They're so different. From what I had just seen, they'd built an entire healthcare service around the needs of the patient rather than the needs of the system.

The last time I went to a doctor in England, it took me two days and some lengthy phone calls to get the appointment. And when I arrived, a week later, I still sat for longer in the waiting room than I had in France.

Once in the hot seat, the doctor told me he couldn't do anything as the computer system had crashed and he had no access to my records. He didn't know how long it would take to come back online either as it was a trust- wide system and beyond his control.

What has this to do with further education? Everything. Because just like our poor beleaguered National Health Service, we've spent the last 15 or so years building systems around systems, rather than students.

Whenever you challenge the premise of some daft initiative or indicate the pointlessness of yet another round of paperwork, the response you inevitably get is, "It's got to be done!" Or, to put it another way, we're here because we're here because we're here.

But surely if you can do it with the health service in France, you can do it with the education system in Britain? So what I'd like to propose is that everyone in FE be given a new right: the right to challenge. This would apply to all, from the mandarins in the ministry down through college principals, managers, lecturers and support staff.

Thus, when someone requires you to do something you can't see the point of, you have an absolute right to object. And if they can't show that it will lead directly to a better deal for the students, then you don't have to do it.

We could call it "L'objection des champignons dans la bouche". Or, if that's too much of a mouthful, how about "the mushrooms in the gob get- out"?

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