More jokes in store as we head towards an early grave

24th January 1997 at 00:00
It really isn't possible anymore to create an improbable educational scenario to raise a laugh. These very scenarios in real life are rendering the loquacious dumbstruck, destabilising the stable and driving us all towards an early grave.

But not towards early retirement, of course. Enough has been said about the Government's overt contempt for the consultation process and about its belief that, having landed principals with the responsibility for managing colleges, it must now tell them how to do it. What is equally infuriating is that there seems to be such ignorance about the actual state of the colleges.

Let there be no misunderstanding. In the present financial climate, what is being proposed will not reduce the number of early retirements by the suggested 35 per cent. It will reduce the number to nothing at all. We haven't offered enhancement since incorporation; we couldn't afford - nor could we justify doing so - annual spending on maintaining old teachers from a budget designed to deliver educational services. The same applies to the current proposals.

It is, however, clear that the Department for Education and Employment would find it difficult to discharge the duties of a principal efficiently. We aren't concerned about the action plans of gung-ho 40-year-olds who entered the profession so that they could leave before they were 60. We aren't concerned either with broken-down old crocks who are past their sell-by date. We don't have teachers in either group.

We are concerned about good teachers who are over 50, and to whom we can no longer afford to pay the high salaries they deserve. We can't afford to pay them as much, but we certainly don't want to lose their services. We can absorb their responsibilities elsewhere but would like them to go on teaching. Efficient management involves us in doing just that.

In further education, efficiency isn't a choice; it's a necessity. There can be no government fluffing as there can be with maintained schools, where it can be claimed that the money has been awarded to the local education authorities. Our money can't be irresponsibly diverted into housing or health. It comes straight to us from government, administered by the government's own quango, the Further Education Funding Council. And we have to go on cutting our budgets as we have been doing since incorporation. Cutting into efficiency savings demands that we maintain student services, improve quality and do not allow staff morale to slump so low as to affect the business adversely.

As if the early retirement proposal wasn't enough to cope with, we understand that there's another joke in store for us. As demanded, we've been expanding at the same time as cutting our per capita and per unit costs. Fewer and fewer 16 to 19-year-olds are moving straight to employment or unemployment; more and more post-19 students are qualifying for employment, qualifying while in employment, qualifying for a change in employment.

This enables us to keep afloat and serves the needs of the economy at the same time. For such expansion, we are paid at a lower rate than that of our core funding. It's called demand-led funding, although we often have to work very hard to establish the need and persuade those who have it to demand that it be met.

So where's the joke? Well, the joke is that we can no longer be helped to train people to improve the economy. Why? Because the Treasury has spent all its spare money on "mad cow" disease and there isn't any left for us.

It's hard enough every year to set a budget for the year to come. You don't know whether the students will materialise or, if they do, whether they will want to do the courses you've been planning for. You don't know until late in the year how many of the units you bid for will be allowed.

It's difficult to plan for stability and to meet demands that may be different from those of previous years. But it's impossible to produce a budget that can bear any relation to the realities if the criteria on which you thought you could rely are altered in mid-year. One of the advantages of having business members of the corporation is that they are even less pragmatic about it all than principals.

Maybe there is a quick pantomime to be found in all this, with Treasury officials cast as mad cows. But somehow I haven't the heart to try it.

Anne Smith is principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon

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