Take a soil-perturbation implement to the drawbridge

24th November 1995 at 00:00
In education we believe in calling a spade a spade. At least we would if only we could resist the temptation to rename it a vertically-inserted soil-perturbation implement (VISPI). This has the virtue of ensuring that no one, certainly no outsider, knows what we are talking about.

Thus we have seen teachers magically transformed into facilitators of learning, students into client groups and college principals into chief executives. Recently I have discovered another fine piece of ed-speak: marginal performers.

I suspect the term has been in use for some time, but I have been slow in catching up with it. This may be due to all the time I spend in the ongoing facilitation of client group learning experiences, rather than sitting in meetings learning silly terms. Still, at least when I found this one I knew what it meant. Marginal performers (MPs) are those who perform on the margins: or those whose performance is sufficiently lacking as to be considered marginal. Surely, then, this must be referring to that small percentage of our fellow facilitators formerly known as skivers, wasters and tosspots?

We all know them and we know that they exist at every level - in education as elsewhere. Maybe they do make up 2 per cent of the workforce as the Office for Standards in Education's chief Gradgrind, Chris Woodhead, claims is the case in schools. God knows, it can sometimes seem like a lot more.

Now I know differently. For this I have to thank Network Training of Taunton, which is currently touting for customers to join the next Managing Marginal Performers course in the Cheltenham and Gloucester Moat House Hotel. It seems that by paying Network a lot of money, FE managers can pull up the drawbridge for two days and ponder the deficiencies of their subordinates and the nasty things that must be done to cure them.

But the real eye-opener comes only when we get on to the definition of what makes an MP. According to Network's own information sheet it isn't just a matter of skiving or wasting, competence or lack of it. Lecturers may also be considered "marginal" if they "have had difficulty in transferring from an ethos centred upon a social service towards a business-oriented culture. " For they then become the sort of people who display "attitudes that are not necessarily helpful".

This I find alarming. Until now I had naively assumed that only the odd brain-damaged gibbon really believed that education was more of a business than a social service. After all, doesn't business exist to make a profit? Dress it up as you will, it needs must be exploitative. And isn't education the reverse of that? More to do with giving to others than taking from them?

And even if you're warped enough to swallow the principle, look at the practice. All those extra administrators, accountants and managers who clog the corridors of colleges these days. All working in the interests of so-called business efficiency (that is neither business-like or efficient) to give us information systems that are neither informative or systematic (unless systematically getting it wrong counts for anything).

Yes, there is such a thing as efficiency. And we all believe in it, just as we believe in virtue. But doesn't our experience as consumers tell us that we are just as likely to encounter inefficiency in the business world as the reverse?

Oh dear. I'm afraid I'm letting my attitudes show. And from the comfortable vantage point of the gathering at the Moat House Hotel I suspect they may not be seen as very "helpful". But these things matter, don't they? When the educational philosophy of those who run the system ends at the edge of the balance sheet, surely some of us must cry foul?

Certainly they will matter to the managers. Among the many topics they will be considering over on the other side of their moat are some with a decidedly sinister ring. "Carrying out a disciplinary investigation", for instance. Or, a bit further down the same line, "Industrial tribunals: key issues for managers".

So, the message is plain. Doubters beware. All those who feel uncomfortable with the notion of education as just another commodity in the great market-place of life - you can think it, but don't show it or your newly networked managers will be after you. And who can doubt that once the marginalising of the sceptics is in full swing, our old friends the skivers will feel free to carry on with their skiving; the wasters with their wasting; and the tosspots with whatever it is they do.

Stephen Jones is a London college lecturer.

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