Consider the following: Q: When is a teacher not a teacher?
A: When he (or she) is in FE.
No, it's not the latest Christmas cracker joke - it's too sad even for that. Rather it's the conclusion I have come to after my recent brush with the GTC, otherwise known as the General Teaching Council.
It's a curious and instructive story. A week or so ago a letter appeared in my pigeon hole inviting me to submit my home address to the GTC. Also enclosed was a colour leaflet designed to tell teachers all about their "new" council and what a good thing it would be once it was up and running.
Hang on, I thought, didn't I read the other day that the GTC was already in existence? I read on. There were references to dates in 1999 and 2000 as being in the future. I banged my watch a few times. No, it was definitely 2001. What I was reading was ancient history.
The leaflet proceeded with a series of questions which it then answered for you. Things like: "What is the GTC?", "Who will sit on the council?" and "If I join will I still be able to go to the lavatory in the normal way?" Obviously this was deemed to be an appropriate method for informing teachers.
At the end I found the question I was looking for: "How do I get more information?" Ring Anne Hunter at the Department for Education and Employment, it said. I rang. Anne who? She'd left over a year ago.
"Sounds like you've got an old leaflet there," said the voice at the end of the line. There's no flies on these people, I thought.
We wrangled for a while over whose fault the delay might be - he implying that someone in my college was a bit on the slow side, me stoutly defending the integrity of our postroom.
We moved on. My impression had always been that the GTC was for schools, so what could it do for me as a college lecturer? I asked. He wasn't sure. In fact he wasn't really sure if the council was for people like me at all. But I probably could get in if I really wanted to.
He suggested I call the GTC itself. I did, only to be sidelined for 10 minutes in a queue. Ho hum, I thought. Welcome to the custodians of excelence.
When finally I got through to a human being, he didn't exactly put out the welcome mat for me. He slipped into that curious way of speaking that instantly lets you know you're talking to a bureaucrat: "It isn't the remit of the council," he said, "to go searching out additional members."
But could he send me an application form, I asked? Was I a qualified teacher he countered? Yes, I replied, but only since 1977. Did he think that was long enough?
At length he reluctantly admitted that if I submitted an application the council would be obliged to look at it, managing at the same time to give the impression that it would certainly wash its hands afterwards.
At this point my primary-teacher wife arrived home. When she realised who I was talking to she turned a strange colour and started shouting very loudly. Wow, I thought. If it could generate such enthusiasm at the end of a working day, maybe the GTC was worth joining after all.
When I got off the phone she proceeded to put me right. It was not pleasure she was exhibiting, but anger. Then she shouted a bit more. Words like Mickey and Mouse and something that rhymed with "bankers" drifted past my ears. Mrs Jones, it seemed, was not overjoyed at being forced to pay pound;25 a year for something whose worth she doubted. I seemed to be getting nowhere fast. I still didn't know whether the GTC had anything to offer the FE teacher. I had another look at the leaflet. There was a lot of high-minded, nebulous stuff about standards and professionalism.
One fact did stand out though: the council reserved the right to throw out any teacher deemed "guilty of serious professional misconduct or incompetence". So now I knew. Basically they didn't want me. If I persisted I might get in, but would have to pay cash up front for the privilege; and one false move and I'd be out on my ear.
When the form arrived I binned it. Instead I'll be sending a copy of Groucho Marx's famous missive: "Please accept my resignation. I don't want to belong to any club that would have me as a member."
Stephen Jones is an FE lecturer in London