To the liftshaft:a novel approach to raising standards by Jules the Obscure

8th September 2000 at 01:00
Come with to Coasterbridge, a land where war has been declared on complacency and every college is well above average

A browse through the FEFC's website - not recommended for the faint-hearted - will reveal several references to a model of good practice called Casterbridge College. I searched through a number of education year books in vain for the address of this exemplary college - and to see if the principal really was Thomas Hardy Esq - before it dawned on me that this was the FEFC at its witty best: Casterbridge is a mythical institution, reflecting all that the funding council wishes we were.

11 = I expect to see a change of name on my next visit to the site, not as a result of a merger with Borchester College of Land-based Industries, principal Mr Dan Archer, but following a hard-hitting castigation of colleges, by the latest high-profile FE minister in search of a soundbite or two - you know, what's-'is-name, thingamy. Anxious for recognition outside the pages of his own diary, the minister accusescolleges of "coasting".

It can only be a matter of time before the website reflects this with the new exemplar: Coasterbridge College. You know what to expect: from nowhere, the Government finds an extra pound;10 million followed by FEFC Circular 0025 on the Coasting Fund, designed to help colleges find the gearstick, slam it into top and start motoring.

It might help to know what the minister means. The worst colleges have improved by 9 per cent in the past year, he reveals, but middle-ranking colleges have improved by only 5 per cent. So the worst colleges are catching up. Isn't that what they are supposed to do? They have further to travel so they travel farther? How else are they to stop being the worst and have someone else claim the title?

The chief inspector then weighs in to support the minister: "Too many of the middle-ranking colleges consider themselves excellent when their academic performance is at best mediocre, and about 10 per cent of the institutions are not managed satisfactorily, which should be of concern to all those working in and with the sector." Unless you are managing one of the other 90 per cent, when you can say "I'm all right Jim", at the same time making appropriate gestures.

But no. You are most likely one of the coasters. You colleges that are getting good or satisfactory grades at inspection have "considerable scope for improvement", according to Jim and what's-'is-name, Jules? The keep setting us uphill tasks. Our response, they say, is to coast gently onwards. Does it feel like that to you?

Fear not; I am about to take you behind the scenes at Coasterbridge college to glean all their insights into how to engage gear, get your engine running efficiently and move smoothly uphill, piling in the passengers as you go and saving petrol at 1 per cent per unit incline.

Coasterbridge is an inner-city general FE college. The quality assurance system has been abandoned in favour of a decision to arm all staff. They have been told to shoot on sight if they spot an inspector and to put two bullets into anyone from Ofsted on a fact-finding mission to see what a college is. Staff have been told that participating in anything that resembles a bidding process will result in immediate dismissal. All European Social Fund money has been pronounced unclean and evaluation sheets and tri-annual claim-form returns to the government office all now carry a very succinct two-word message. The Individual Student Record (ISR) has been declared the root of all evil and the MIS staff have been redeployed in the student services department. The latest student-number return, ISR 17, has been written in pencil on the back of a learner-agreement form (replaced by a handshake and a promise) and is much more accurate than ISR 16, calculated using 15 computers, 27 staff, 65,000 registers and an optical mark reader which had to take early retirement on stress grounds two weeks after it started work.

External auditors have been asked to audit internal auditors who will concentrate on the work of the health and safety auditors, overseen by the National Audit Office, guided by the FEFC audit service. A suitable lift shaft has been identified as a venue for their activities.

No one, absolutely no one, will be offered an Individual Learning Agreement if there is even a breath of a separate enrolment system. The same goes for Learndirect and any other spawn of the devil-may-care administrators. The risk-management assessment has met with an unfortunate accident and the strategic plan has been cancelled because of unforeseen circumstances.

Coasterbridge is opting out of the madness of a system riddled with contradictions and duplications and is putting its efforts into teaching students. Its message on coasting is clear: if you want me to run faster, get off my back.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield College.

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