An order that sticks in craw

8th April 2005 at 01:00
You will have heard of pecking order. It is used by that noblest of birds, the chicken, to preserve hierarchical dignity. If the cockerel gets something badly wrong, he pecks the biggest hen to save face. Aghast at the injustice of this, she looks round for a slightly smaller hen to peck and so it goes on until everyone's face has been saved except the poor little plonker at the end of the chain with no one left to have a go at.

I guess you can see where this is going already. You think I have identified a pecking chain in the FE sector, which starts with the Department for Education and Skills and ends with colleges, don't you? And you think I'm going to use the analogy to have yet another go at the system and its mad components, don't you?

You are thinking, here he goes again, gratuitously slagging off the DfES, the Office for Standards in Education and the Learning and Skills Council.

Why on earth doesn't he do it more often?

Let us begin with the chicken farmer safe in his strategic tower at the Department for Eggs and Seed (DfES). He guarantees his organic hens, his jewel in the crown in their small, protected free-range patches, no reduction of any sort in their feedstuff and, what's more, any closing of the gap with the malnourished wretches in the battery farms will be a rounding up, not down.

As the farmer struts round his office, puffing out his chest at his own magnanimity, his attention is drawn to the fact that there isn't quite enough cash to fund seed increases for the many small organic farms as well as the commitments to the big battery producers. The farmer has cocked it up and the seed tray is bare. Someone has to be pecked.

Now the Laying and Seed Council (LSC) is a pretty big chicken, but no match for the cock of the south in the Department and in goes the beak. Mortified and broke, the LSC has to find a peckee. Over in one corner, busy feathering their free-range nests, are the gold-standard organic bantams.

Out in the sheds, shackled to their roosts, are the force-fed battery layers, up to their ankles in you know what, no room to manoeuvre, all producing eggs with little benchmarks stamped on them. No contest, really.

The LSC, its feathers badly ruffled, runs into the battery house and slows down the feed line.

"Hang on," the weary hens cry from their perches, "what is this all about?"

"We haven't enough to feed you properly," says the big hen, "so we will give you less now and top it up later out of next year's allowance."

"But that means we will starve this year," say the egg-layers. "Ah well, can't be helped," says the big hen, feeling better already.

The farmer also knows he has promised to help the wretches in the mass-producing sheds grow a little bigger. But there isn't enough seed to do that, especially as some of next year's now has to be used to make up this year's shortage. So the farmer decides the battery hens are getting too fat and eating too much and he does his sums again.

Unfortunately for him, he has also promised to stop crawback, the system where battery chickens must regurgitate their seed if they have not laid enough eggs in the previous year. Then he could have got the much-needed seed.

He had not promised an end to pecking, though, and the LSC got it in the neck again. Find a replacement for crawback, the farmer said to his boss hen, that will get us the seed we need without breaking our promise.

The LSC hen looked around. The bantams were still feeding merrily and getting a good 10 per cent more supply than the battery drudges. Sadly, there was a war-like glint in their eye that the LSC did not like, so off it went to the sheds again.

"We have a new system for you," said the LSC. "It's called crawforward. We want you to regurgitate your seed now on the grounds that we've counted the eggs you've laid so far and worked out that you won't lay enough for the rest of the year to justify the feed you've already had.

"And, since that should pretty well guarantee that you won't hit your laying target, we'll cut the feed ration for next year on the basis of this year's underperformance and start the cycle again.

"Naturally, we still want to see that little ol' benchmark on all your eggs. So get laying and lay meaner and leaner than ever."

The big hen sniffs the air and feels a pang of remorse. "Terrible stink in here, by the way. I'll see what can be done."

Well, you know what happens next. The LSC pecks the next big hen, a well-fed bantam, and says: "Have you seen the state of those battery sheds? It's a national disgrace. Get something done." And that is where the Office for Standards in Egg Delivery comes in.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield College

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