If you haven't got it, you can't flaunt it

5th December 1997 at 00:00
Does this skirt makes me look fat?" Donna twirled sideways for the verdict from her classmate. As we entered the lift, their evaluation of Donna's appearance developed into a commitment to join a new aerobics class. "I want to lose three kilos by Christmas for Tenerife," she said, as they set off for the canteen. "Just keep me away from the chips."

A near-perfect example of self-evaluation, I thought, as instead of following them to the canteen for a fattening lunch I headed for the lecture theatre and a very slimming 45 minutes of input on that very topic.

It would have been pleasant to report that the time was spent preening in front of mirrors asking. "Does this lipstick make my lips look fat?", or listening to a group of blokes reassuring their mate that of course she won't have lost respect for him and of course she'll phone him again. No. The self in question is of course the individual who constitutes the corporate self.

Self-evaluation is second nature to those of us in further education. The new practices outlined to us during the lunch hour build on our existing practices. Perhaps because FE is a Cinderella who buys the frock but never quite gets past the final fitting stage we've always indulged in an orgy of self-examination and self-improvement. "How do I look?" we ask anxiously, tugging at a seam here and there, and tightening our belts, wondering if we're lean enough. Or perhaps it's because FE always has to be ready to justify its existence in a predatory world. Whatever the reason, self-evaluation is in our blood.

What is new, of course, is the team structure. Curriculum and support teams will gaze into the mirror to evaluate how we are doing. Are we very good, we will ask, are we simply good, or, as we begin to blanch, are we not the fairest of them all but just fair? Worst of all, are we unsatisfactory? The gradings offer no hiding place. We must also learn to say "So what?" No, you've got the intonation wrong there - it should be a genuine question which will aid us in our search for improvement.

Donna's performance indicator was pretty straightforward. Either she could squeeze into her bikini and hit the beach for Christmas or she couldn't. Life in FE is a little more complicated than that. For example, one of the most vital considerations we have when we consider the quality of our provision is our achievement and retention rates. Browsing David Blunkett's "Dear Bob" letter on the TESS web site makes it clear that it is a nationwide preoccupation. How many students drop out and why? How can we improve on the figures?

A high drop-out rate may indicate that something is very wrong with our treatment of students, or it may indicate that we're doing brilliantly. We're here to equip people with the skills they need to succeed in the workplace. If a student is offered a job halfway through his course and chooses to drop his studies in favour of a wage packet then that's a success not a failure. Richard, a mature student, left halfway through the first block of his Higher National Diploma year not because he was dissatisfied but because he was offered a job with good prospects. He left in a flurry of excitement, but not before telling us he had only found work because of the new skills he had learned during his time at college.

When a job turns up like that, students may face a dilemma. Should they finish the course and hope a similar or better chance will be offered once they've got that vital piece of paper, or should they seize the opportunity now? At 45, Richard decided not to take that gamble. Gina, at 18 and with nerves of steel, showed how it could be done. The promotions company she had joined as part of her work experience programme offered her full time work, starting immediately. She loved the work and was desperate to make it her career but felt she had committed too much to her HND to give it up midway. She has negotiated to continue working on a part-time basis with them, finish her studies, and then join them full-time once she has achieved her diploma. Gina, then, will help us score on our student retention and achievement - and on our into-employment figures, too.

The most important part of any self-evaluation process is of course the how-was-it-for-you factor. We listen to our students, not just through the student representative system, but as individuals, too. However, sometimes students' perception of the learning experience can seem a little strange. Natalie, from my National Certificate communication class, paused to draw breath. "It's work, work, work in this class, isn't it?" she said to me in a tone which suggested she had expected fun, fun, fun. Or maybe she had just been listening to too many of Tony Blair's speeches on education.

Before you decide I'm just too tough on them, compare that with Lisa's comment in the creative writing class. "I just wouldn't miss coming to the club every week," she said. Maybe I need to beef up the workload in the creative writing class and tell the canteen to switch the standing order for Buck's Fizz to the stressed-out communication class.

Donna's preoccupation with Tenerife made me think it would be nice if self-evaluation allowed the lecturer and other members of the team to feel, you know, valued, as individuals. We could devote a session to positive stroking and mutual support. "Yes, you've lost so much weight - a few more lunch time lectures on self-evaluation and you're sure to reach your target." Perhaps a little too innovative?

In broad terms the self-evaluation structure we're adopting is nothing new, but like a washing powder in a bright new box, or a brand new diet and exercise regime, we can seize on it with delight and renewed enthusiasm. It's a new prism to address with the old question "How do I look?" Further education has always looked pretty good to me. As a new lecturer I was bowled over with the opportunities created for the people who came through its doors whatever their age or their starting off point. Further education's trouble has always been an inability to insist that its successes are reflected in its prestige and funding. We're poor at selling ourselves. Self-evaluation and improvement are all very well but will that process of inspecting ourselves in the mirror allow us to start flaunting ourselves more. Will "how do I look?" change to "look at me".

Meanwhile, pursuing the highest quality in visual aids for my students, I am putting the finishing touches to my Powerpoint presentation. It has colour, music, media clips and words which shoot in from crazy angles. And it's playing in a teaching space near you. When you've seen it, just tell me honestly - does this lipstick make my lips look fat?

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in mediacommunication at Dundee College.

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