As for me, Armageddon out of here as fast as possible

18th July 1997 at 01:00
Some people are so formidably well-organised that they make the rest of us blush for shame. There's one principal whose personal assistant always gets in early and goes through the post, arranging items in different in-trays.

This aid to decision-making and time-management is extraordinarily simple. Things requiring immediate executive attention go into a blue tray, those of lesser importance into a red one. The principal likes to start every day with a blue task, because this sets her up for the rest of the work with a warm glow of achievement.

A very well-known principal of a very successful college a long way from here never goes into any meeting without considering Armageddon. He looks round the room and the assembled group and makes a mental note of the person with whom, if the last trump were to sound, he would like to spend those last few, active and enjoyable moments on this Earth. Such forward planning is an example to us all.

But the thing about Armageddon is that you don't quite know when it's going to happen. Inevitably, someone, somewhere in the world is going to be caught napping. Or with their trousers down, literally if not metaphorically. It may all come to pass sooner than you think. There has, after all, been talk of a rogue asteroid hurtling into us, wiping out us modern-day dinosaurs, and covering the planet with grey dust.

There was just such a scare recently, when many people here in the North-west hurried to put their affairs in order. This was in spite of the fact that Accrington comes a consistent top of the poll when people are asked where they would like to be when the world ends, on the grounds that events here are reputed to lag at least 10 years behind what's going on elsewhere.

I was caught up in this frenzy of activity and set about preparing the college for its rediscovery by some biologically remote descendants in several aeons' time. I mean, you would want to create the right impression, wouldn't you? What could I do? How was I to spend my last hours on Earth, and what evidence should I assemble as an archive to be interpreted by our ultimate successors?

For some, the first would be no problem: they would restructure the college. The serial reorganisers would have a lovely time drawing up new diagrams and charts of responsibilities, so as to ensure that all the staff perished in the same state of confusion as that in which they had lived. Just as, in the same circumstances, Mozart would have dashed off a brace of deathless symphonies, David Melville would have tossed off a sheaf of circulars, and the NATFHE national executive would have passed a unanimous emergency resolution expressing their outright condemnation of all non-negotiated college closures.

My ambitions were more modest. I just did a few things I have always wanted to but never quite had the bottle to do.

I cancelled the contract with the college auditors and stopped their cheque (no point in enriching them in the hereafter), deleted a few carefully selected and intensely disliked entries from my electronic address book (did I really hear the faint cries as they disappeared into a black hole in cyberspace, or did I imagine it?), and made a bonfire of the Further Education Development Agency's publications.

I was about to add the glitzy prospectuses of some of our local competitor colleges to the flames, but discovered that they were so drenched with unction that they would not burn at all.

I then gave some thought to what should go into the time capsule to be found by the future intrepid investigators. To give them a clue about how we met our end, I decided to enclose pictures of other shooting stars which had blazed briefly in our educational skies and then self-destructed as they fell to earth. At last a use for those fading photographs of Lord David Young (remember him?) and John Patten (never to be forgotten). To enable them to understand what being an end-of-the-millennium student meant, I put in an identity pass, to indicate our schizoid preoccupation with both access and security; a student's bank statement to show that post-compulsory education was financed by debt; and an Asda part-time employee badge to show what they did when they weren't mugging up on the Tudors and Stuarts or getting their kicks from Boyle's Law.

One of those multi-page, external verifier's reports went in, just about as comprehensible to me as the Dead Sea Scrolls, so who knows what they will make of it? They might struggle, too, with the latest Individual Student Record return on its little disc, which had to find a place as an example of just how sophisticated we had become in the art of saying nothing of interest or importance. Finally I popped in one of those sponsored car parking badges, from which the researchers will be able to deduce - from the sponsorship - how far the education process had become commercialised, and - from the reference to the car park - the main item on successive agendas of the college's academic board.

One last tour round included those staff rooms where they always give me an old-fashioned look, the student common room, where I wish I had spent more time, and the college nursery, the only place where they not only still believe in Father Christmas but also think that I am he. Then back to the office, where I made a pillow of a sizeable pile of unread Further Education Funding Council circulars and inspection reports, and lay down to compose myself for the end.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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