Once upon a time there lived a great emperor, known throughout the land as Minister for Further Education. This minister loved to deck himself out in the fine clothes of his education policies, and then pose about the place, basking in the admiration of his subjects.
One day a gang of brigands arrived in his kingdom. As they obviously couldn't admit to being rogues, they adopted the plausible disguise of right-wing political advisers. They went to the emperor and told him that they could make him a fine new set of policies - the finest in the land, or indeed any land. If he followed these policies his students would flourish as never before - performing better even than their richer cousins in the kingdoms across the water.
They warned, however, that, because the new policies were so fine, to the stupid and the uninitiated they might look like nothing at all. The emperor liked what he saw (or didn't see) and said yes, these men and women must begin their work at once, and set them up in a luxurious suite of offices in the heart of his bustling capital.
Soon the policies began to take shape. The first and most essential of them concerned money. Formerly, this had been given to colleges, but now it was to be taken away from them - every year more and more (or less and less, as the colleges themselves saw it).
This was a good thing, said the advisers, as it meant the students could be taught for fewer and fewer hours, which would obviously soon raise them above their foreign cousins, who were still overtaxing their brains with long and tedious sessions in the classroom.
Then they turned their attention to the lecturers. These were greedy and lazy people, the advisers declared, and immediately doubled their workload, at the same time cutting back on their over-generous salaries. Only by turning the lecturers into demoralised and down-trodden drones with low morale and high stress levels could the education of the students be further improved, they said.
Next they arranged for many of the lecturers - particularly those with the most experience and expertise - to be thrown out of work, replacing them with people from agencies who knew little about education and nothing about the students and colleges in which they would be working. This, said the advisers, would improve standards (which they had quietly re-named quality) even further.
And now, they said, they would give even less money to the colleges, because soon lots of big companies like ICI and Marks and Spencer would be queuing up to give them an alternative source of gold, so impressed would they be with the fine new policies.
All the while this was going on, the emperor was despatching his most trusted flunkeys - civil servants, inspectors, quango bosses - to see how his new educational clothes were coming along. When they saw what was happening they knew in their hearts that the policies amounted to nothing, but were afraid of looking foolish in front of the others. They remembered how the advisers had said that only simpletons couldn't see the benefits of their policies.
So they went back to the emperor and told him how wonderful his new educational clothes were, and how well the policies were working in colleges throughout the length and breadth of the land. And, in case he should ever falter in his resolve, they taught him to repeat this little dictum: "There is no alternative".
The emperor was so pleased with the reports of his new clothes that he decided to parade them in front of the public, so that all could see how beautifully designed they were, and how well they fitted the 1990s.
Came the big day and, surprise, surprise, everyone said how fine the new policies were looking. Of course they saw really how the colleges' coffers were empty, the lecturers in despair and their agency replacements hardly able to wipe their own bottoms or know what day of the week it was. But, just like the flunkeys, they were afraid of seeming foolish by saying so.
Suddenly, a different voice was heard. In the crowd, roly-poly Johnny (an overgrown schoolboy who had somehow managed to persuade a deluded principal to make him director of academic studies) shouted out: "Yah boo, Mr Emperor, those policies are nothing. You're not wearing any educational clothes at all. "
Soon others took up his cry. Now they could see that the emperor was indeed as naked as the day that he was born. They laughed at his nakedness, shouting out how ridiculous his little dictum was.
When he heard the people's laughter, the emperor was afraid. Deep down even he had begun to have doubts about the wisdom of the policies. But it was too late. He had invested far too much pride and blather in them to discard his new measures now. Defiantly he clung to his little dictum. "There is no alternative," he bellowed at the top of his voice. Calling it out like this somehow made it seem bigger than it really was.
Then the emperor turned his back on roly-poly Johnny and all the multitude. He stamped his foot and said that his new educational clothes were fine and beautiful. And to show that he meant it and that nothing at all was going to change, he called for a new band of flunkeys (to be known as the Association of Colleges), who would ensure that the advisers carried on making the same sort of clothes and who could be relied upon to rally round and tell him how exquisite they looked on him. And that there really was no alternative.
Stephen Jones is a London FE lecturer