The meaning of life, time lords and back numbers

5th December 1997 at 00:00
I have not been feeling too good lately. I have been sort of listless and unable to concentrate. I have even stopped re-reading my collection of government circulars, it has got so bad.

And I have the finest collection of back numbers in England, including a rare, signed first edition of one of the pre-corporate livery numbers (9201-9207) and - my favourite, this - a mint condition unopened copy of 9702, the one that caused the retraction in 9738. A real collectors' item, that one. Suddenly, however, not even they offer me enough; there is something missing from my life.

So I went to see my GP. My GP has gone alternative. He is sold on the holistic approach. If you go to see him with a sore toe, he tries to place it the full context of your lifestyle and attitudes. It usually turns out to be something at work that's causing the problem, so that is where he started.

He asked me a very unusual question: "What are you for?" I don't think I have ever been approached so teleologically in my life. I began to ask him whether he wanted the riddle of my existence explained in metaphysical terms or whether I should stick to empirical data, but he interrupted: "No, I mean what are you about, what are your values, what do you believe in professionally?" Well, that was easy. I recited the principal's credo: I believe in the unity of the sector and the power of the Further Education Funding Council time lords in Coventry. I believe in a clean Individualised Student Records and timely data returns. I believe in one average level of funding, indivisible. I believe in growth and the power of the franchise.

I believe in the financial memorandum and the circular on capital support funding. I believe in the potential of the Private Finance Initiative. I believe in the sacred demand-led element and helped banish its despoilers. I believe in the unit target and a college's ability to calculate it. I believe that 756,000 units means something in terms of students. I believe in the healing process of inspection.

'I see," he said, "and these time lords in Coventry, what are they for?" A much harder question, of course. But I told him that they too have their aims: value for money, convergence, representing the sector, keeping regional committees on a leash, securing adequate and sufficient provision and that they publish a wide range of inspirational documents in support of them: just look, I said, at paragraph 24 in Circular 9738: "It would be possible to incorporate, within the alternative method, a rationing mechanism which would allocate individual units above the initial allocation with reference to estimated actual performance. As under the existing allocation mechanism, an ALF could be calculated based on an institution's allocation and its estimated actual units. This would be used to calculate each institution's percentage increase in additional units above the initial allocation and would reflect actual performance."

Of course, it doesn't mean as much out of context, but the doctor got the drift.

"What are they like, these time lords?" I told him of their ruthless efficiency. He gasped when I said they were transparent and criterion-led. I told him they were agents but not arms of government and then he said: "Ah, a quango".

"And who did you work for before this harsh, utilitarian regime?" he asked. I told him about the romantic period, when we were led by visionaries who had their dreams but were terribly poor and hopeless at economics. Any money they had was spent on the little children in primary schools. But they had teams of itinerant advisers and journeymen curriculum developers, none of them from FE.

They talked of student-centred approaches, independent and flexible learning, student support and equal opportunities. They built palaces to the great god of staff development and forgot to put on courses for FE. They let junior clerks overrule principals on the colour of the curtains in their offices. They had capital money but always spent it somewhere else. They never made anyone redundant and let you overspend if they liked you. They grew like Topsy, till there were more of them than us. We knew they were there to help, even though they rarely could. Some of them were saints and some were sinners. All of them talked, a few delivered, but none of them paid. They still exist, the romantics, but only in other sectors.

The doctor thought for a while and said: "I think I know what's wrong with you. You are suffering from vision starvation. You have been too long in the land of the performance indicator and the success measure. You have had too many targets set for you and let in too many strategic impact goals. You can't go back to the romantics but you need a change and I think I have just the thing for you."

He handed me a prescription: "Take liberal doses of this with plenty of alcohol to deaden the pain and it does the trick."

I looked at what he had written on the prescription: 500ml of training and enterprise councils daily, with regular check-ups from the Regional Development Agency. Well, I may not know what I'm for, but I know I'm not for that. Maybe there is something to be said for the time lords and their anti-Tardis in Coventry.

Anyway, I have the solution. I've changed my doctor.

Graham Jones is the principal of Sutton Coldfield College.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today