Scandal-seeker hunts out message

13th February 1998 at 00:00
I was on a bus the other day, passing the old Cock Tavern in Fleet Street, and naturally fell to thinking about Bill Clinton. Well, not so much about the man himself, as the whole business of scandal in high places - or possibly low places if Ms Tripp is to be believed, but that's another story.

No, what it reminded me of was how deadly dull the world of further education is. How lacking in really juicy, high-profile scandal we are. And in consequence how we shouldn't be surprised that no one wants to know about what we do or to give us any money for doing it.

Just look at the pathetic little brouhahas we do have. I mean things like "Principal runs pub in college time". Not exactly front page News of the Screws stuff, is it? And anyway, I suspect there are quite a few colleges where they'd be absolutely delighted if their big cheese did choose to spend his time pulling pints - as long as it meant that he left them alone while he was doing it.

Then there are all those sensational revelations of a nepotistic kind. How we've been thrilled by "VP appoints son as learning centre co-ordinator" or the agricultural college's contribution: "Senior lecturer grazes goat on college lawn". I mean, can't he think of anything more interesting to do with a goat? What did he get his promotion for in the first place?

They're all so dull, dull, dull. No wonder we're the Cinderella service. (Though have you ever thought how inappropriate that comparison really is? After all, Cinders did go to the ball. And she got her handsome prince. All we get is David Blunkett!) And then, when we do at last produce some sort of half-way decent cause cel bre - I refer of course to our very own Rogergate - what do we go and do with it? Lock away all the really interesting stuff under the guise of "left by mutual agreement".

With the whole of the sector agog for more revelations, all we're told is that the Association of Colleges' former chief executive might have been cuddling up a bit too closely to the staffing agency Education Lecturing Services, or there again he might not. And as for that Pounds 650 that kept turning up in his account - well couldn't it just have been that postal order from his aunt he'd forgotten all about?

All right, we know the man liked his champers. But that's not quite the same as being caught naked on top of the Oxo Tower drinking it from a dancing girl's slipper, now is it?

Roger himself isn't going to tell us anything. He's had a gagging clause slapped on his golden goodbye. (When the subjects of Clinton's alleged misdemeanours get one of those, somehow we find them a lot more interesting. ) A proper scandal is what we need if we're ever really going to drag ourselves out of obscurity and on to the front pages. We've had Rogergate: next stop Todgergate! Nominations please, on a postcard. . .

Are you "on message"? Am I? The term, in New Labour parlance, is the one currently in use to test the party faithful for orthodoxy. To be on (as opposed to off) message seems to translate roughly into: Yes, I am prepared to slavishly believe (and endlessly echo) whatever Millie Molly Mandelson tells me to.

In further education terms at the moment, however, the "message question" is a bit of a tricky one to answer. When the Tories came to power it took them a while to sort out what they were going to do with FE too. To start with they completely ignored it. For men who'd been at Charterhouse and Oxford, "Effie" might as well have been their charlady. And how could they be expected to take seriously something that happened in Nissen huts and involved cooking and fixing carburettors?

Once they had eventually cottoned on, however, their message came through loud and clear: good-bye local authority, hello our authority! Like some sort of institutional highwayman, they expected us to "deliver" up everything we had, while handing us nothing but a metaphorical whack round the head with a pistol butt in return.

Mandy's minions have at least acknowledged our existence right from the beginning. Haven't they told us how wonderful we are? How vital our role is for the land of milk and honey they are planning for all our tomorrows? In short, they love us. (Only trouble is, isn't that what lovers always say to their partners just before they dump them?) Perhaps I'm being too cynical. After all, they have given us the New Deal. Pity that some are already complaining it's more like New Steal - giving with one hand, taking away with another. Helena Kennedy's report has been welcomed, but where's the cash to make it all happen?

But then of course that's the rub. Money. Or rather the lack of it. Without any more tax revenue to come, how can they really untie all those knotty problems left behind in the wake of the Tories?

So, nine months on from the election we find ourselves still asking: message - what message?

Steve Jones is a lecturer at London FE college

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