Two words are simultaneously flavour of the month: partnership and competitiveness. They seem to be antonyms, yet we can only enter some competitions if we can form a partnership. Does the right hand have any idea what the left hand is up to?
Clearly, there are good reasons why we should avoid concentrating on the ruin of our competitors. It's expensive, it takes our minds off the essential business and it seems to contradict what we are trying to teach our students.
In a competitive world, I advertise in the local paper because I think you will: you do the same. We buy the paper and see the advertisements. Some schools and colleges advertised in our local papers every week this term: but who is laughing all the way to the bank? Those whose business it is to take advertisements.
To run a successful college we need to concentrate on what we are doing. If we are into improvement, it should be - shouldn't it? - improvement on our previous performance against our own performance indicators. If competitiveness has taken over, we shall be looking over our shoulders all the time. They've put on another course: we must put on an extra course. Should it be the same one, or a new one they haven't thought of yet? Are our results better than their results? If so, why not sit back? If not, how can we present our results so that the difference doesn't show? Competing against our own previous performance, competing with ourselves, is the most effective form of competition if we want to improve the service.
As far as the curriculum is concerned, much has been written about students taking control of their own learning and working in teams. But is there a false message here? Should the core skills of the dying century be throat- cutting and back-stabbing?
Within the college there is bound to be a tension between partnership and competitiveness. Staff are concerned to keep their jobs in a threatening financial climate, there is an intrinsic competitiveness in that. If it seems likely that redundancies are in the offing, who can blame people for thinking first of their own futures?
Where good partnership exists, it is based on the survival of historical collaboration. If staff have worked together for years, they continue doing so. They will have initiated the partnership because they agreed this would be the best way of achieving a common objective.
As an English teacher, I worked with a historian on the play Luther discussing its historical accuracy with English students and the way in which fiction can illuminate history with historians.
It is more difficult to build a new relationship when this seems to be imposed on you. Staff associate requests for them to run joint lectures with cost- cutting, such requests are not seen as imaginative ways of encouraging inter- disciplinary cohesion but as ruthless machinations to make teachers work harder.
There is much bidding these days, mostly for pump-priming for new initiatives, things we couldn't do without new money. Most bids demand partnerships with other colleges and other bodies.
Short-term partnerships can be very successful even if the project fails when the pump-priming money runs out. A partnership with a local school to provide further education on its premises for pupils without the confidence to join a large college lasted a year only. Nevertheless, it was successful during that year, and the reasons for its failure led the college to look at different ways of meeting the needs of students from the housing estate.
Long-term partnership may be more threatening. A relatively small college entering into a partnership with a large one may fear domination. It is likely to receive a smaller share of whatever funding the colleges are jointly bidding for, and the project may necessitate sharing more information than the small college would think wise.
At a regional meeting about the Government's competitiveness fund, two colleges from a successful consortium spoke movingly about partnership. Unfortunately the principal of another college was present who claimed other colleges in the partnership had been cold-shouldered.
Partnership does not seem to be the motive behind league tables. They encourage us to look at others, either to celebrate their failure to do as well as we did, or to lower our self-esteem by noting those more successful than ourselves. They don't show us how to improve, and they don't encourage partnership with other colleges or with parents.
The league tables can hardly give parents any information they really need. The sixth-form college with the highest A-level score is in Cambridge, which doesn't help parents a lot. And while our entrance qualification for an advanced course is four GCSEs A-C, there is a school in our area whose entry requirement is eight GCSEs A-C, with A or B in the subjects to be studied at A-level. That's not in the league tables.
It has to be right for us to work together to improve further education, to spend the money we have on that and not on advertisements. The time we have is better spent on continuous improvement in our own colleges than on checking what others are doing. If we have the freedom to operate individually, we should also choose to work collectively if that will make choice easier for students, and increase the curricular choices available.
The best partnerships are those we choose for ourselves. The essential elements in any successful partnership are shared purpose and trust. Too often these days this does not seem to be the main purpose of any of the partners. Even if they share aims trust cannot be legislated for.
Anne Smith is principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon