No regard for the poor bloody infantry in the trenches

31st October 1997 at 00:00
What is the link between first world war commander Earl Douglas Haig and further education's own man in command - the as yet unenobled Roger Ward? The answer is their attitude towards the troops on the front line in their respective fields of combat.

Haig's name has become synonymous with the style of back-room generalship that ended so many young lives in futile attempts to break through the German lines on the Western Front. His ignorance of what it was really like for the front-line soldiers under his command was truly shocking - as was that of his fellow commanders.

Of course, Roger Ward, chief executive of the Association of Colleges and principal architect of the "new" FE, doesn't end lives. But he appears every bit as remote from FE's army of workers as were Haig and his chums when they sat and planned their "decisive" offensives.

Funnily enough, there were some signs recently that General Ward's stance towards the dwindling and hard-pressed band of lecturers who staff the hundreds of colleges that his organisation oversees had softened. He had paid them compliments. And he had joined them in their calls for an end to the crippling "more for less" approach to Government funding that he himself did so much to help bring about in the first place.

But of course it couldn't last - and it hasn't lasted. Witness his recent broadside in a national newspaper aimed at NATFHE, the lecturers' union, and its campaign to end casualisation of the FE work force through the use of employment agencies for part-time staff.

Vicky Seddon, one of the contenders for NATFHE's vacant general secretaryship, had indicated that closing down the agencies would be one of her aims if elected. This is hardly surprising. As a trade union, NATFHE wants to defend (and possibly even improve) the pay and conditions of its members. Agency staff, by definition, have less job security than their tenured colleagues. They also earn anything up to a third less in salary.

But General Ward is having none of it. His eyes are only on the coming victories. Agencies, he declares, are the best thing to have happened to education since the invention of chalk. They, together with other "flexible" work practices, mean colleges can now "succeed without being a burden on the taxpayer" and "deliver David Blunkett's vision of a properly skilled workforce with lifelong learning opportunities for all".

You can almost see him trying Haig's jodhpurs and swagger stick for size as he leads his own "growing army of agency lecturers" who "permit colleges to deliver a product tailored to employer - and student - demand".

Perhaps he believes this. Or perhaps he doesn't, but thinks it politic to say so anyway. The same goes for his statement that "most colleges now introducing agency lecturers do so precisely to drive up the quality of teaching standards and raise the profile of our once quiet backwater of education".

Outside the bunker of AOC headquarters, most people think that colleges bring in agency lecturers because they are forced to by ever-shrinking budgets. And as for underpaid, under-committed temporary teachers "driving up the quality of teaching" - well, come on, even a John Major minister wouldn't buy that one.

Castigating NATFHE's leaders as being "not so much old Labour as old Stalin", General Ward once again demonstrates how little he knows about the topography of his own particular battlefield. FE's repressive governances are not so much to be found in the cellars of Britannia House as in the "new" regimes in colleges across the country - regimes he has done so much to help create.

From all corners come cries of "foul" as lecturers find themselves sacked, persecuted or disciplined for their union activities. And what price academic freedom and liberal values when a college principal sees fit to bring a charge of "gross insolence" against a lecturer who has the temerity to speak up against bullying management?

Already cynics are suggesting that his inveighing against Vicky Seddon is really part of devious plot to get her elected on the grounds that "if Roger Ward is agin' her then she gets my vote any time".

As an old man, Haig devoted himself to the welfare of ex-servicemen - presumably in expiation for all those who, because of his tactics, never made it that far. Maybe we can look forward to something similar from General Ward in the autumn of his years: a lecturers' retirement home perhaps, where, Mother Teresa-like, he will dispense calming words and warming soup to the broken and shell-shocked remnants of his old FE army.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer in a London FE college

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