Serenity comes at a high cost;FE Focus;Comment;Opinion

5th June 1998 at 01:00
I was quite sure, when I was young, that in middle age I would be serene. Younger folk would flock to see me to listen to my accumulated wisdom and bask in the aura of my tranquillity. It never happened. Probably this had to do with leopards and changing spots, but certainly external events don't promote serenity.

What's the point in working on communication skills so that people can read tabloid newspapers and join the latest witch-hunt? What good is application of number if it's used to calculate winnings on the slot machines or at the races? Does IT have a higher function than to replace the plain brown wrapper and allow us to enjoy pornography in the privacy of our own homes?

I am less than serene when I reflect on the new, exclusive GNVQ, throwing aside all those who don't perform well in examinations - which is most of them, since that's why they chose the courses. I am cynical about widening participation when the degree to which we can do it with Further Education Funding Council support is limited. This means that we market to those who can afford to pay fees rather than to the poor, and to those who have jobs already rather than to the unemployed.

Collaboration attracts funding these days. Partnership is a much nicer word than competition, but isn't in reality as nice as it sounds. It means that partnership is now between groups rather than individual institutions, since funding is still subject to competitive bidding. Usually you have to look for new partners. It's like an expensive dating agency. Colleges could make a career from being professional wallflowers, encouraging bids to be anyone else's new partner. With so much overlap in group membership, the warm fire of collaboration does not quite penetrate the chill of distrust at our backs.

Most bids concentrate on capital awards, as though we still have, if we ever did have, the staffing to do anything with the equipment we can now afford to buy. So the rooms fill up with IT equipment, but we cannot afford to employ someone who can use it to the full.

This does not foster serenity. The real trouble is that there are so many layers between the vision and its implementation. Most of the layers seem neither to share the vision, nor to care about the practicalities of realisation. They have targets instead.

I do believe that those who have a vision care very much about people. But they do not seem to understand them or how they work. If people haven't enough to eat, we give them food. If they haven't enough education, we give them education. Simple. But though the hungry usually know that they want food, the uneducated may not want education. Or they may want something different from what we want to give them.

They want the education they hated earlier on - or failed at earlier on - to appeal to their own tastes and to come in bite-sized chunks. An adult takes a short course in cake-decorating. She's hooked. She goes on to an NVQ in catering, and now runs her own business. If no one had funded the original course, and she'd had to find the fees (which she couldn't afford, I forgot to tell you) the rest wouldn't have happened.

As far as the bite-sized chunks are concerned, Credit Accumulation and Transfer is about just these. I thought for some time that those in power didn't know what it was. I'm confused now, for lately they have taken to holding their fingers to their noses in a confidential way and suggesting that CAT is indeed on its way, but stealthily. Who are we trying to sneak up on? Why aren't they listening? We know that putting a CAT framework into place would be hard work, but if we believe that it is the only sane way ahead we could be more patient if it were an openly-declared objective.

And that's another thing. There's a lot of talk about openness and trust, but if you suggest that that's what should actually happen in a particular case, you're accused of being politically naive. In the Seventies, a retiring teachers' leader gave a final speech in which he said that courses in preparation for adult life should include "Getting away with moonlighting", which would do the pupils a lot of good in a time of high unemployment.

In the same vein, I suggest that - if it's naive to propose that we should be honest with each other - we stop being hypocritical and promoting honesty and trust to our young people.

Or should we get our house in order according to the serene principles of feng shui so that we can do the best we can for them?

* Anne Smith is principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon

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