Don't be blue, boys, just follow the FE beat

23rd May 2003 at 01:00
ISN'T it a scandal about the police? I read recently that nearly 20 per cent of their working day is now taken up with such things as patrolling the streets and catching criminals.

That means that they have only around four-fifths of the time they spend on duty left for real police work like meetings, admin, paperwork and hanging around in seedy courthouses waiting to give evidence.

Clearly something must be done. The exact figures are 17 and 83 per cent respectively, and I would suggest that the only way to get that 17 down to more manageable proportions is to set some pretty stringent targets. As we know, targets are the only way anything ever gets done in any walk of life these days, so let's say 15 per cent in a year and 10 per cent in three years. And then maybe the police could take a leaf out of further education's book, and introduce the concept of the "trail of evidence" into their procedures. Let's face it, evidence is pretty much meat and drink to the Old Bill, though we are not talking here about anything that could be used to get a conviction.

No, the way it would work is that instead of just tracking down and bringing to justice a gang of burglars, the officers concerned would also have to "prove" to some imagined observer that they were actually doing so.

Let us call this imaginary person an inspector - another term the boys in blue should feel at home with. When he calls, our inspector will expect a whole bunch of things to be ready for him to inspect: log books of observations, tapes of interviews, copies of charge sheets, witness statements, the judge's inside leg measurement and countless other little trifles, all wrapped up neatly in blue ribbon. It is easy when you know how, and it will certainly make us law-abiding citizens sleep safer in our beds knowing that our defenders are being properly called to account.

As I say, none of this is new to us labourers in that stony field that is FE. And, as in the uniformed services, we too have spent much of the past 10 years attempting to increase the proportion of our working time spent on real work such as pushing paper, talking to one another about how to push more paper, and keeping records of paper pushed.

A colleague provides a good example as to what this means in practice. One Friday afternoon he found himself putting in two hours solid in order to have his quality file ready for a health check on Monday morning. That left him just 10 minutes before security turfed him out of the building to prepare for the two classes he was also due to teach on that day.

Did my friend mention this sad little story to his managers? He would not have dared. He would have known how much it would have worried them. That 10 minutes. Surely, they would have thought, he could have found a more profitable use to put it to? It was not as if an inspection was looming when teaching and learning naturally take pride of place.

There are other things, too, the police might consider borrowing from FE.

Although our burgeoning admin load continues to gnaw away at our preparation and marking time (sometimes known as our "free" time - or evenings and weekends to you and me) the number of hours we actually spend on teaching is not affected. It is in our contract: 24 hours or so in front of a class every week or else.

So why not revise the police contract - sorry, modernise the police contract - by stipulating that every officer must spend a set proportion of their duties performing their equivalent of teaching, that is chasing villains? Those other tasks which currently take up some 83 per cent of police time won't be diminished, of course. As in FE, the time spent on them is much more likely to go up in future years than come down. But that won't matter, because doing the paperwork will then be a matter for individual officers to sort out for themselves. OK, it will inevitably eat into their "free" time (try evenings and weekends) and drive them all absolutely demented. But that is their problem - or rather theirs plus their partners and families. For the rest of us, it will be a good thing.

The bobbies will be back on the beat and policing will have become a "value for money" service.

And if a few namby-pamby individuals go berserk, or AWOL, or end up sitting in the dark with pencils up their noses and underpants on their heads, surely that will be a price worth paying for being able to walk the streets safely again?

Stephen Jones lectures in a south London college

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