Drowned by paper in theatre of the absurd;FE Focus

21st May 1999 at 01:00
Phillip Conford explains why he's relieved to be quitting the FE system after 25 years as a lecturer

Just before the end of last term, our head of department instructed us that completing course evaluation documents must take priority over every activity other than actually being in the classroom. For the sake of quality assurance, we were to put paperwork ahead of preparing lessons and marking assignments.

Clinging to the vestiges of our faith in the college's true purpose, we reassured ourselves that the management was at last paying tribute to the vital relationship between lecturers and students. This last hope was duly destroyed a week later. Another departmental head took a teacher out of the classroom to write a report, at once, on the courses which the department intended to offer in the next academic year.

These incidents helped confirm my feeling that I had been right to opt for voluntary redundancy at the end of term. I had no wish to continue as a cast member of the Absurdist drama which the FE system has become since 1993. When every decision is taken on financial grounds the relationship between means and ends is inverted, and the paper representation of quality becomes more significant than its substance.

Our principal proclaimed the new creed in his first full staff meeting, back in April, by telling us that the college attached too much importance to teaching. He dazzled his bewildered audience with the paradox that there must be a greater emphasis on learning.

Some of us knew what this really meant; we had seen an artist's impression of the proposed learning resources centre, with row upon row of learners sitting like galley-slaves at computer screens. In a subsequent meeting the principal promised us that we would still be needed, and that we were the institution's most valuable resource.

Just as agricultural efficiency is measured by output per worker, so the logic of the Further Education Funding Council seems to demand as few teachers as possible. The exception to this rule highlights one of the contradictions generated by a finance-driven system.

Since every student represents money, entry requirements for courses - in my department, A-levels - must be undemanding. In financial terms large classes are more "efficient", but weaker students suffer. As colleges have to achieve a satisfactory "retention" rate (a Freudian analysis of the jargon might prove illuminating), these weaker students need learning support to prevent them dropping out. So while teachers in one part of the college have their classes merged or disbanded in the interests of rigorous finance, others are being employed to teach intensively, one-to-one.

The finance-driven system also affects student behaviour. Students know they are worth money and that the college wants to keep them, so they feel secure enough to ingest and deal in illegal substances in full view of the "executive officers".

The executives seemed to me more interested in controlling the lecturers than they were in controlling the students. What happened to one of my students is a case in point.

Nominally a member of my A-level class, this student rarely appeared or submitted essays - he was too busy indulging. Eventually the warden of the residences decided that his behaviour was unacceptably blatant, and he was dealt a crushing blow - being suspended from college for an entire week.

This was like giving official permission to be absent from his classes. Then, he was worth more than pound;10,000 a year to the college.

Such a system is self-defeating. The emphasis on measuring quality is the surest sign that quality is under threat, and the methods used to assess it contribute further to its demise.

A host of forms must be introduced to record student responses to induction, college facilities, course management, and the teaching; time spent completing these means less time to cover the syllabus.

As the only reality in the post-incorporation era is what can be measured, paperwork ceases to be a record of what is done and becomes a substitute for doing it.

Lecturers may well insist that teaching is the most important activity in the college and try to defend it against the ever-increasing demand for statistics. But management appears to see lecturers as a regrettable expense, on the basis that efficiency and accountability are prime considerations for the college's survival. They elevate a requirement to a purpose.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that, despite all the rhetoric of giving the punters what they want, students do not want what management insist they should have. They do not see themselves as customers; they do not want to feel that they represent sums of money, or to be in "efficient" large classes; they do not want less teaching; and they certainly do not want class time spent on form-filling.

What they value are precisely those aspects of college life that cannot be measured: in particular, the quality of the personal relationship with their lecturer, and a sense that lecturers are encouraged to concentrate on developing the students' understanding of their subject.

FE colleges are now like the biblical house which was divided against itself and could not stand.

Managers pride themselves on their realism, but are ignorant of, or even hostile to, what lecturers actually do. Lecturers are only just realising that the logic of the current FE system turns educational issues into matters of marginal importance.

The situation is absurd, and for me at least, its contradictions are unsustainable. Enough is enough - from which I conclude that any more would be too much.

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