Paradoxical conundrum posed by the Red Baroness

26th September 1997 at 01:00
Question: what do you call a Red Baroness? Answer: An oxymoron. The term according to my dictionary is a statement or expression containing a seeming contradiction.

And what could be more seemingly contradictory than a Labour politician - in this case our new (well, newish) minister in charge of further education, Baroness Tessa Blackstone - possessed of that archaic handle.

Maggie Thatcher was another matter. Giving her a medieval title connoting absolute authority over a bunch of hat-doffing, forelock-tugging serfs was surely a stroke of genius. But aren't Labour luminaries - albeit of the new variety - meant to be more like the rest of us? Their party the people's party?

So, seeming contradiction it is. What will it mean, I wonder, serving under a Red Baroness? Will she ride in a Bentley one day, on a bike the next? Or wear her ball-gowns in strict rotation with her baronial boiler suits?

And what will it mean politically for us poor serfs in FE? Will she give with one hand, take away with another? And can we expect her speeches to alternate something along the lines of the following: The Labourite: "We are expecting a lot from further education. If we are to move into the next millennium with a skilled and flexible workforce, what sector will have a more crucial part to play than FE?

"Unlike our predecessors, we realise this cannot be done on goodwill alone. That expansion and progress will cost money. And that money is precisely what FE has been starved of for the past several years.

"Everyone knows that we haven't got very much of it. In truth we've dug ourselves into a bit of a hole by our pledge not to raise taxes. But I want you to know that there will be more money for further education. Not in five years' time but now, this year, before colleges start going bust or large parts of their programmes are forced to close.

"More people must be attracted into our colleges. People from all backgrounds and social classes. My good friend Helena Kennedy has pointed the way. The aping of business methods is not productive where the 'business' is people. I pledge therefore that we will put an end to the current funding system of bureaucratic penny-pinching which requires us to hire accountants as fast as we are sacking teachers.

"Which brings me to my final and most important point. The teachers themselves. What general would send his troops into a crucial battle knowing they were depleted, demoralised, downtrodden? Only a very foolish one, I hear you say.

"We must therefore take immediate steps to restore to our lecturers their autonomy and their pride; to reduce their workloads; to pay them a decent rate for their demanding job. Yes, money is tight, but some issues are too important to be put off for any longer. We must treat our lecturers as the professionals they are, not as naughty children."

The Baroness: "We are expecting a lot from further education. If we are to move into the next millennium with a skilled and flexible workforce, what sector will have a more crucial part to play than FE?

"Like our predecessors we know how important it is to have the goodwill of those at the grassroots. More money would be welcome, but in education, as elsewhere, we can't solve all our problems just by throwing money at them. Our wise pledge not to raise taxes means that it may take five or even 10 years before any new money can be found for FE. And if in the meantime some inefficient colleges are forced to shrink or merge or even close, then those that remain will be fitter and stronger as a result.

"Of course we respect the work of Ms Kennedy's committee on bringing a wider cross-section of people into FE. Indeed, we will shortly be setting up a working party to examine its findings. We must not, however, risk losing the benefits of the efficiency gains made since incorporation. Value for money must continue to be the watchwords. Yes, the Further Education Funding Council may require some fine-tuning to help bring in more of those disadvantaged so dear to Ms Kennedy's heart. But we in New Labour are economic realists if we are anything. And that (as teachers as much as anyone must realise) means putting heads before hearts.

"Which brings me to my final and most important point. The teachers themselves. We recognise the crucial role they will play if we are to succeed in making ours a truly learning society. The Tories denigrated them. We say loudly and clearly that we are full of admiration for their efforts. Unlike the last government we appreciate the sacrifices they have already made. And we are confident that, in these hard times, they will understand that there can be no quick financial fix to the very real problems that they face.

"As responsible educators we know they will rededicate themselves to their task, behaving like the true professionals they are, and not the naughty children some would encourage them to become."

Oxymoronically speaking I have to say I know which script I would prefer to hear read.

But I think I know too which we are more likely to be in for from our very own Red Baroness!

Stephen Jones is a London FE college lecturer

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