How to make a drama out of crisis management;Commentary;FE Focus

23rd February 1996 at 00:00
Just getting to work has been problematic this month. They've been digging up the road outside college. It's a steep hill, which used to be one way but has been temporarily turned into a two-way access from one (variable) end only. Confused? So are we, especially at 8.20am. Do we go up or down to college? Does a "Road ahead closed" sign coupled with "Diversion" and "Access only" mean I really can drive up to the college entrance? Or do I go all the way round and down? Don't ask me, I'm only a communications lecturer.

When I analyse the signs using a deconstructionist approach I decide it means I can get through (no, that doesn't mean I simply knock all the signs down). Then I confront an angry man in a large digger. Should I insist, wave a paper at him and say I have here a memo from my assistant principal?

In my very small Micra I choose to execute a nifty three-point turn. I did work it all out eventually. The logic of access was that of nursery rhyme, decided in Grand Old Duke of York fashion "When you were up you were up you were up, and when you were down you were down . . ."

But if the route to college seemed a worry, I soon discovered that I was wallowing in blissful ignorance. Why there were a hundred enormous worries I should have. Our guest speaker this month for our Higher National Diploma students was a dynamic consultant in crisis management. Crisis? What crisis?

Over coffee before her talk she explained that her first task with management was to outline the dire possibilities no one had probably thought of - along the lines of "if it's possible, it can happen" and then to set up a programme to deal with contingencies. In college we were pretty clear on a range of crises from bomb threat to fire, but her quick-fire list had us blinking. After some cheerful advice about lifts plummeting we will all lose kilos tramping up and down the nine floors to the workroom.

David, a student completing assessment for a public relations units, found the talk impressive. "She's fantastic! Imagine coping with all that responsibility - I mean, for a woman, too." He still has a little way to go for PC and PR credentials.

It was a hugely successful afternoon - there weren't enough seats because extra students squeezed in and the talk lasted longer than anticipated because of eager questioning. A request by the speaker for some water probably seemed reasonable enough to her, but have you ever tried to find a glass - or even a respectable coffee mug - in an FE workroom? Miraculously, I found a glass, filled it up and carried it through. "Gin and tonic?" she asked hopefully. Nope. Only murky ninth-floor water.

The students were impressed by her vibrancy. I don't know how she felt about them. The trouble with students is they're so . . . relaxed. Lecturers are pretty well used to students who yawn, or look at their watches, or even lay their heads down on their arms for a quick forty winks. It doesn't mean they're not interested, for goodness sake. You do tend to notice it more when someone else is subjected to it, though. Audrey, yawning for the third time, was impervious to my eye signals.

The PR students got an insight into future careers and the writing for the media students produced fine articles for the local press. All of them were treated to an example of what life is like at the cutting edge, when programme or no,every crisis is unique. Next week, what they learned will be put into practice when we stage a crisis at college. We'll make it as real-seeming as we can to give students a chance to test the skills they've been honing - and yes, we have thought of all the things that could go wrong here . . .

Meanwhile, on a smaller scale, our journeys to college have been enlivened by blizzards and deep, sticky snow. It doesn't seem to matter now which end of the road you choose for your approach. You get stuck. We're on to the last stanza now. And when they were only half way up they were neither up nor down. And not a digger in sight.

Carol Gow is a communications lecturer at Stevenson College, Edinburgh

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