I HAVE been told, by someone in a position to know, that, at some point in every meeting of the 1930s Soviet politburo Joseph Stalin would begin a discussion of the weather.
He would announce "The sun is shining on our country, comrades", and debate would obediently switch from deporting another national group or purging a layer of party officials to a consideration of the temperature outside and the cloud formations over the Kremlin.
My informant said that Stalin's meteorological observations came to be seen as reassuring, a comforting, if meaningless, point of reference in every meeting. In much the same way there are comments without which no meeting with an FE presence is complete.
"We must not forget the small and medium-sized enterprises," for example. It is a ritual incantation which illuminates every talk about how to stimulate a greater demand for training for the employed. We always say it, and everybody nods, but never do we decide on what we should be doing with the SMEs. So, at the next meeting somebody says it again, and we all nod.
If you find yourself at a meeting, uncertain of what it's about or who is there, listen out for the claim "We know more than anyone else about the communities we serve".
You will know instantly that the meeting is about further education, and that you have just heard their representative speak. The work of local councils, health authorities, the police and a whole variety of other organisations and agencies is brushed aside by this bold assertion. Believing, in the teeth of the evidence, in this mantra helps us sleep at night.
Go to any gathering at which widening participation or the University for Industry is on the agenda, and people start talking about developing local community centres, about putting up notices in doctors' waiting rooms, about handing out leaflets in supermarkets, and about getting invitations to speak at meetings of voluntary organisations. Before long a plaintive voice will be raised, saying: "But we've been doing all this for years already. This is what FE is all about." Another article of faith, held up like a clove of garlic to ward off uwelcome invaders of our territory.
If we feel the need to keep mouthing these gobbets of received wisdom, it is either because we like chewing our old comfort blanket, or because people simply don't believe us, and we keep trying, by repetition, to convince them. Stalin had no such problem. What he said was believed at once. He could talk about the sunshine in the middle of a blizzard, and nobody contradicted him. But we sigh deeply and utter another well-grooved aphorism "nobody understands FE". Like a sulky adolescent we blame others for our own failure to get our message across.
Just now the weather is particularly changeable. We are being deluged with new initiatives and sprinkled with the money needed to make them work. A mighty wind is blowing through our familiar structures, blowing away the Further Education Funding Council and the training and enterprise councils.
An impenetrable fog has descended over the near future with many colleges still unclear about how much money they will get next year, or even how their allocation will be calculated. Occasional thunderclaps signal yet another ministerial announcement, often contradicting the last one. Some people claim to see a brightening of the skies next April.
It is not surprising that, in the midst of the gloom into which we seem to have talked ourselves, we have begun to cast about for scapegoats. Some sufferers are clearly having nothing more serious than a bad attack of life: the "isn't life awful?" brigade. They are always with us.
Others blame the Government for, allegedly, going back on promises which the moaners are strangely unable to recall. But a new stand-by line is emerging. It began as a half-heard mutter, and has grown in strength in recent months. Faced with legislation which frightens them, with new relationships which confuse them, and with a market share which they are powerless to stop shrinking, people at all levels in college organisations are asking: "What is the Association of Colleges doing about this?" Why, enjoying the warm sunshine, of course.
Michael Austin is principal of
Accrington and Rossendale College