Don't knock the debtors' prisons

17th December 2004 at 00:00
Now that the initial brouhaha has died down, what are we to make of Office for Standards in Education chief inspector David Bell's pronouncement on the "disgraceful" state of further education?

The heads of this august FE body and that distinguished colleges'

organisation have expressed their disapproval and even one or two brave principals have added a faint "hear-hear". But what of those of us on the shop floor? What do we feel about Mr Bell's remarks? Sore might be the term that first comes to mind. Closely followed by fed-up, pissed-off or just downright angry.

The problem is that, while the chief inspector's remarks about providing a good service to our learners are fair enough, the overall deal that we get in FE is anything but fair. In other words, you can't take the Mr Bell's words in isolation. You have to contemplate some of the following:

* The place of FE in the great chain of educational being. Conventionally this reads (from the top downwards): public schools; good grammars; less-good grammars; city academies; sixth-form colleges; good comprehensives; bog-standard comprehensives; tertiary colleges; big gap; bit more of a gap; general FE colleges and then dogs' homes. And yes, before you write in to complain, perhaps I have been a bit hard on the dogs' homes, given all the good work they do on obedience training.

* The place of FE in the hearts and minds of the nation. If they think about it at all, what most people think of FE, is that it is somewhere to dump all the problems that no one else wants to deal with. Like those great institutions of Victorian Britain, the lunatic asylum and the debtors'

prison, FE is expected to sweep up the poor and the disadvantaged, the hopeless and the hapless.

* The logic of selecting students for FE. A couple of years back, when the politicians were scratching their heads over what do with those 14 to 16-year-olds that the schools couldn't handle, it was to no one's surprise that they eventually settled upon FE. Why not? They'll fit in very well with the older adolescents we already have in our custody. These, a recent research project reminded us, are specially selected for us by schools on the grounds that they are the least academic. And that's the judgement of the kids themselves.

* The many and various needs of the adult students. If you've reached adulthood and still can't read and write, where do you head but your local FE college? Or maybe you're just off the plane from a conflict zone on the other side of the world. Traumatised, bewildered, unable to speak the language, but there's one word you quickly pick up - "college". And then there's our steady, regular supply of return-to-study adults.

But aren't they highly-motivated, ready to go, champing at the bit of learning? Well, yes, they are. But often too they come carrying the not inconsiderable baggage of having already failed at education once, twice or even three times before. Not to mention that many of them are broke, struggling to bring up a family or battling illness of a physical or mental kind. Oh, and sometimes there's drugs and booze too.

* The expectations of others. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining about our having such students, either the adults or the younger ones. If you choose to work in an FE college, you know it is not going to be a selective girls' grammar in Tunbridge Wells. It's just that certain other people sometimes seem to think that it is!

* Money, what money? Not only do we get society's dirty jobs to do, we also get persistently short-changed for doing them: less cash per student than school sixth forms, and considerably less pay for our troubles than the teachers of those sixth-formers.

* If only it were just money. But, of course, it isn't. Since incorporation, FE teachers have been progressively casualised, marginalised and subjected to the worst excesses of managerialism. Not to mention being piled ever higher with stupid, pointless, make-work tasks.

So yes, maybe it is silly and irrational to be irked at the chief inspector's lambasting of FE's bad boys. No doubt we should just take our punishment and cheerfully resolve to do better. But somehow I can't help thinking that what Mr Bell has done is a bit like rubbing a dog's nose in his own filth and then whipping him for having a filthy nose.

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