Time to cast aside sweet dreams of Lottery nirvana;Commentary;FE Focus

26th January 1996 at 00:00
Our section has staggered into 1996 after a gruelling first block. Not surprisingly, staff were hit by the flu bug and we ended up having to work out absence cover for absence cover. Oh, you poor thing. Well, plenty of hot drinks and stay in bed, yes we'll manage, we would chirrup to the croaking voice on the phone before turning grim-faced to our companions, that dwindling band, to see who would draw the short straw this time.

On one memorable occasion, as we desperately tried to contact a staff member teaching in another centre, Margo, our cleaner, stepped womanfully in and answered the phone. In her boots trimmed with tinsel, her Santa Claus hat, vacuum cleaner in one hand and phone in the other, she presented a bizarre picture of teamwork.

The past year has been a year of frustration. Numbers capping, tightened budgets, rationalisation of courses and increasing student poverty have all blunted the edge of our ambitions for the sector. Add to that the increased pressure put on staff in a "more for less" drive and you might well expect everyone to be checking their Lottery tickets very carefully.

The new year has brought former students "first-footing". Megan is now in her third year at drama college. "Can you bear a visit?" she will ask, knowing that her life is lived in primary colours and a little of her goes a long way. She keeps in touch because she believes it was her year at college which gave her the confidence to switch directions. "With the money from my first big break I'm going to buy a house in Spain," she said.

This wasn't just wishful-thinking - this was all part of Megan's long-term strategy. "I won't have a pension, you see, so when I'm older I can live there in the winter much more cheaply, and rent it out in the summer." Since she was still damp round the edges after her flat had been flooded out by burst pipes I could certainly see the attraction in her plan. Tony brought along copies of his firm's house journal complete with his photograph captioned "assistant editor". As ever, he had broken all the rules about applying for a job; he wrote a cheeky letter, included a poem, and ignored the fact they were looking for someone with a couple of years' experience.

I remember trying to be tactful about the lack-lustre quality of his intros in his work for the journalism units. "What's wrong with them?" he badgered. "Well, they're boring," I finally had to admit. Looking at his work now I can say the intros have improved.

Not everyone has been as lucky, or maybe as cheeky, as Tony. Jonathan, one of our award-winners last year, still hasn't found a permanent job, though he's looking hard and is eternally optimistic. In work or not, these former students are great ambassadors for the college and they brightened up the new year.

It always astonishes me that despite extensive marketing - and despite word-of-mouth advertising from people like Megan and Tony - further education often remains a best-kept secret. Violet, one of my flexible-learning students this session, was taken aback to find college not a bit like the schoolroom she feared years ago.

"I thought we'd sit in rows and the teacher would give us a telling off it we talked," she confided. Made redundant when one of the big multi-nationals pulled out of the city she's dipped a toe in the water of education and has discovered it's fine.

She's become the matriarch of the group which meets each week and who have become firm friends, supporting and encouraging each other through personal triumphs and disasters' - husband's redundancies, children's illnesses, financial problems, much-wanted pregnancies. For Violet especially, it's flexible-learning in a wider sense. Janine's a young single mum in the group whose ideas on bringing up baby in the nineties are rather challenging to a traditionalist like Violet.

Mind you, Violet's picture of students sitting in neat rows and feeling overawed can seem very tempting. I've been having real problems with punctuality with one class these dark grey mornings. Crisis point was reached when 17 students trooped in at 9.20am. We had a long discussion and agreed that anyone who was later than 9am shouldn't disrupt teaching, but should rejoin the class after teabreak.

It worked. The first week, only one student was not in class before 9am. Week two, however, produced a dramatic moment. Caught by the new agreement, one student was determined not to be excluded. He marched in at 9.30am and sat down in the middle of the floor cross-legged. Nobody sang a protest song. Pity. I feel quite pleased that a student was unwilling to miss part of my class.

A surreal image is conjured up: "Go away. Have a coffee and a cigarette in the canteen. Relax." "No! No! Please let me stay here and learn how to write a report!"

The rough edges will be smoothed out before the year is much older. They will all learn to turn up on time and learn to love college. My wish for further education 1996? A better year when nobody bothers to check their Lottery numbers.

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