With three wheels on my wagon, can I keep rolling along?

24th May 1996 at 01:00
When you cut it hurts. When you cut in education that hurts too. Normally it hurts someone more lowly paid and vulnerable than the person who's wielding the knife.

So consider the case of this friend of mine. He works, funnily enough, in a college very like mine. Teaching similar students.

And like almost every other teacher in further education today, he has suffered from the attentions of the Further Education Funding Council scalpel.

The cuts that particularly concern him at the moment are those to course hours. Where before he might have seen his class for five or six hours every week, now he only sees them for four. And with the examinations looming he's a worried man.

Now if he worked with things rather than people this would not be so much of a problem. What does the Ford worker do when they speed up the production line? He warns of the consequences - not my fault, John - and sits back and enjoys watching it happen. Friday cars on every day of the week. Four wheels, three wheels, what the hell. They can always call them Reliant Robins.

And when some punchy young executive jets in from Detroit and sacks a couple of middle managers, he can enjoy that too. Particularly as he knows that he's not a middle manager and, come Monday, the line will be back at its old speed and all will be well with the world.

But of course my friend's case isn't like that is it? His job isn't like that. For car worker, read nurse. (I might have said doctor, but look at the pay, the status...) So nurse it is. Now the nurse can warn: cut this, cut that and the patients will suffer. But can the nurse sit back and watch it happen?

"I'm sorry, Mr Smith, but I'm about to go off duty now. You'll probably die in the night, but at least you'll have the satisfaction of knowing it's saved the taxpayer a few bob. Next time round perhaps you'll consider joining BUPA. "

My friend can warn too. He has warned. In long and earnest conversations with his managers. Cut student hours, he's told them, and pass rates will fall. Grades deteriorate. Weaker students go to the wall.

And his managers, give them their due, say he has a point. They only cut, they say, because the principal tells them to. And the principal's been forced to do it by the FEFC. And the FEFC has less money because the Government gives them less money. And the Government says it's only responding, in today's harsh financial climate, to what it calls "economic realities". So basically it's nobody's fault except perhaps his, the classroom teacher's - Roger Ward, chief executive of the Colleges' Employers' Forum, says this - for having had such an easy life for so long.

Unfortunately this still doesn't solve my friend's problem. He's still panicking over his "patients'" health. Those examinations are still looming. This is his job, his life. These are human beings he's nurtured for one, two years. Can he sit back and watch them "die" in the exam room?

But wait. He thinks he's found a way out. A way round the problem. He's noticed that the room he teaches in is free after the class has finished. He's free at that time too. So are the students. If he sticks another hour on each of his classes from April to June he might just do it. Finish his revision and give them sufficient exam practice to really make a difference.

The students will be happy - at least they will be once they've got over the shock of that extra hour. They'll be getting back some at least of what they've lost. The managers will be happy too. Pass rates, league tables Q they've a product to sell after all.

That just leaves my friend. Isn't he happy that another tricky problem has been solved? Yes, but with the other side of his brain he's been doing some accounting. All those extra hours add up. Let's face it, they're overtime. Unpaid overtime. And he's already teaching more hours to more groups of students than he used to, through the new con-trick (sorry contract) he put his name to last year.

And the more he continues to paper over the cracks, to make do and mend, the more he'll have to.

So, what's he to do, this troubled friend of mine? Which way does he jump? What does he choose? Healthy patients or Reliant Robins? To help his students or help himself?

You know what he'll choose.

Stephen Jones is a London FE lecturer

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