Freddie Starr ate my hamster;FE Focus;Comment;Opinion

23rd April 1999 at 01:00
QUEEN IN PUNCH-UP AT PALACE was the headline that, some years ago, convinced me that sub-editors dream up headlines first, and then wait for the right story to come along. The story turned out not to be about raised voices and flying toast at Buckingham Palace, but a football incident in which a famously combative player, Gerry Queen, had lost his temper in a game at Crystal Palace's ground.

So it is in the demure world of further education. The headlines say one thing, the facts something else. Recently, a broadsheet which normally ignores colleges entirely gleefully described Bilston College in a headline as the "worst" college in the country. The text put a somewhat different gloss on the story, pointing out that there had been an alleged failure of management rather than a total failure of the college. Bilston College is one example, and a much-documented one, of a group of colleges which have hit the press for all the wrong reasons. Reasons, note, not a single reason.

Lumping headlined colleges together in a convenient category labelled "scandal-hit", "failed", or "worst", take your pick, point your finger, leads people to think their failures are all of the same kind. They are not. Halton is not Bilston. Wirral is not Matthew Boulton, nor is Gwent, still less Cricklade.

Some of those sinbinned colleges were managed and led by individuals with precisely the instincts for community-based, outreach, innovative approaches, which have been rolled up into the Government's mantra of widening participation. Their failures have been those of financial control. Other colleges in the list have been in the hands of people whose sense of ethical scruple or public propriety was not immediately obvious. The finances were apparently under control all right: it was what they were being used for which caused the problem.

Of course, controlling the money is the single most important part of any principal's job. Without that control there can be no curriculum, no students and no college. To say otherwise would be like the captain of the Titanic putting his hand on his heart, keeping a straight face and claiming that, but for the iceberg, the journey was a success. But holding the corporate wallet is not the only skill which principals are expected to have. A good college is not defined simply as one which declares an annual surplus in the accounts. Any half-awake observer of the college scene could take you to colleges with impeccable financial credentials in which the curriculum is covered in dust and festooned with cobwebs.

The capacity to envisage an imaginative, dynamic, alert and even innovative education service is rare, and those who have it should be cherished. It is somewhat easier to find people who can read a balance sheet and control a budget. Some exceptional latter-day Renaissance people can do both, but we should not assume that all college principals are exceptional. The movers and shakers, the dreamers of dreams need the support of those who can count all the pounds out and count them all back in again.

Colleges don't go belly up overnight. The rumours were rife in the Midlands and on Merseyside many months before any public announcement was made. Guardians of the public purse could have done much more, much sooner to avert a capsize. Not simply to preserve the service to the thousands of actual and potential students, not simply to preserve the jobs of those now caught in the downdraught, but to ensure the survival of some of the ideals, energies and conceptual leaps of which FE is still in desperate need.

Those who use the availability of large amounts of public money to enrich themselves, and they have been shown to exist in FE as well as in other walks of life, have no claim on our sympathy when they are rumbled. Freebies for friends have no part in public service. By all means let's drive out the bad, but let's try to avoid, in future, driving out some of the good as well.

We can be sure of two things: the next time a college goes down it will be because of money problems, and that media coverage will tar us all with the same grubby brush. A trigger-happy sub-editor will heave a sigh of relief and release the smart headline which has been kept for just such an occasion.

Just like the editor of the Cambridge University newspaper who, noting that the Jesus college rowing eight were likely to progress from the second division of the Lent races to the first, was able to forecast, just in time for Easter: JESUS TO GO UP.

The author is principal of Accrington amp; Rossendale College.

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