Think big on a broad front;Viewpoint;Opinion;FE Focus;Social Inclusion

12th March 1999 at 00:00
I COULD be a politician because I am good with "big ideas". Everywhere I go, people call after me "Hey you! What's the big idea!"

Mr Blair has big ideas: education, education etc, bomb Iraq, that sort of thing. But his best is the "Third Way": not quite the popularity of the Poll Tax, perhaps, or the career-enhancing potential of "back to basics", but, as an idea, it has the necessary quality of bigness that politicians like.

"Bigness" as an adjective applied to ideas is interesting of course. "Little" ideas are not popular with politicians because everyone can see them for what they are and understand them straight away.

"Littleness", in idea terms, leaves you nowhere to hide. In this sense, "education, education, education" is a very big idea. Increasing the pay of all teachers by 25 per cent immediately is a very small idea indeed, especially if it includes teachers in FE. Big is beautiful because it is too large to be defined, has no edges, no horizons, goes in every direction at once, and costs nothing. Like the Third Way; especially when applied to FE.

You will all remember the First Way with misty-eyed affection: friendly LEAs, safety nets, do as you're told, no redundancy policies, a co-ordinator for everything including co-ordinators, your turn next year, people who couldn't spell FE let alone manage it, income targets, re-directed ESF and all the other ills the flesh was heir to. The Via Dolorosa.

The Second Way was straight, fast, dangerous and no place for softies. It began in Scotland and roared onwards till it met the Melville-Hall intersection in Coventry, where the signposts started to point in different directions.

You will remember it only too well: kill or be killed; same size shoes for everyone, giant or dwarf; students replaced by units; control through consultation; the Knights of the Circular table; the "now you see it now you don't" trick of growth cash (labelled DLE); and of course there were some bad things too. The Via Mafia.

And now we seem to be heading for the Third Way, a sort of Via Romantica of sunlit uplands of co-operation, tunnels of love with only one boat, you show me your strategic plan and I'll show you mine, hold my hand I'm a stranger in paradise and howdy, stranger, care to share my campfire?

Planning is back on the agenda and sharing, caring, harmonised relationships between all the players in FE:TECs, colleges, LEAs, RDAs, FEFC and others are to lay down their arms and start looking for a common hymn sheet. All that has gone before is anathema; wickedly wasteful duplication; harmful competition. The Third Way will provide a shining path between Scylla and Charybdis (look it up: it's something the Argonauts had to risk in their search for a beacon award).

Well, I'm not so sure it will happen quite as we expect. If God had wanted us to work together he wouldn't have created the Further and Higher Education Act (1992). As a former wise and aged staffroom colleague always said when change was in the air and he had his back to the wall: "I agree in principle, but I foresee difficulties."

And here is the first of the difficulties: decommissioning. Who is going to hand in their weapons first? How are we going to time the handing over of strategic plans, and how will we know they are the real plans? Who is going to promise to stick to their own territory and not intrude and who is going to make them if they don't? Who is going to set up the cross-border institutions and who is going to run them? Where is the Good Friday agreement?

Who is going to do the planning? And using whose super-accurate labour-market information? Who will write the plans and who police them?

If we all agree to concentrate specialist provision in one college or area, who will put up the capital funds and pay for the redundancies elsewhere?

And if there are to be no chiefs, but only happy Indians passing round the peace-pipe, where is the model that shows this can work and what happens when the real world intrudes? Who, for heaven's sake, is going to be the new Godfather?

Everyone knows about the Japanese soldier who never found out the war ended. Twenty years later he was found still living in trees on his remote Pacific island, still sniping at everything that moved and still determined to win the war when everyone else was at peace.

Well, I have a feeling that, this time, that soldier could be Birmingham. Or it could be the other way round. The war could go on as before and only our leaders and the joint national council think it's over. The fourth way.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield College

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