The good old days

7th August 2015 at 01:00

Wasn't the past marvellous? In my own past life as an actor, there was a creaky old turn in every theatre company who regularly announced, "That's not how we did it in 1968." These theatrical stalwarts truly believed that everything about their yesterdays was infinitely superior to their disappointing todays.

They were tricky to work with but they weren't a patch on FE's pre-incorporation nostalgics, who occasionally surface only to declare that everything post-1993 is rubbish. Before the sprawling titans of personality-free edu-commerce reigned, it would seem that every college was run like a small family business and the staff dynamic was similar to Are You Being Served?.

Everyone knew everything about everyone else, no birthday went un-caked and, come Friday tea time, they all piled down the local - probably to watch the Moon landing.

Having worked at a number of huge colleges with varying degrees of staff cohesion and corporate success, I had always thought stories of the good old days were a tedious fiction told by unhappy teachers. Then I got a job at a small college.

Many people had been there for decades. I assumed they stayed because they were in a comfortable rut; possibly even afraid of change. After a while, I realised I was wrong. They stayed because it was a lovely place to work. With all the same pressures of larger colleges, it still managed to hold on to the feeling of community that is so important to maintaining high workforce morale.

At first I found it twee when all-staff emails shared breaking news about a Ford Fiesta with its lights on in the car park, or a set of keys found in the canteen. But it soon became clear that this was a demonstration of people caring about each other; simple acts to save someone else's day, uninhibited by notions of corporate gloss.

When times got tough and it was announced that there would be redundancies and whacking great pay cuts, our manager's first instinct (although affected herself) was to look after her team. She quietly disappeared - we assumed to have a cry - only to come back 15 minutes later with carrier bags full of cream cakes. Such small acts of kindness unified the team in a situation that could have caused huge divisions.

As colleges get slicker and efficiencies require more impersonal communication, it's easy to forget that happy staff can provide all the resilience and responsive action the sector wants. This doesn't have to be the privilege of a small workforce. Creating opportunities to share good practice and support each other, as well as have a laugh, is achievable anywhere. It just takes thinking of staff as people rather than managed assets - not easy in the current financial climate, I know.

Although I will no doubt work for larger colleges in the future, I won't forget how my colleagues have developed a level of morale that transcends any corporate will to do so. My time at a little college has been close to the happy atmosphere of pre-incorporation I've heard so much about. The FE leviathans could perhaps learn a thing or two from their own not-too-distant pasts.

Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands. @MrsSarahSimons

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