Time's winged arrow flies back to the future

4th April 1997 at 01:00
After the controversy over Graham Swift's Booker Prize-winning novel Last Orders and its similarities to William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, I have found the ideal book to illuminate further education's current plight: Martin Amis's Time's Arrow.

Amis was interested in time and the nature of evil when he wrote it at the beginning of the Nineties. Bored with novels that started at the beginning and ended at the end, he decided to begin with his Nazi war-criminal protagonist on his death bed, and work backwards through time to his conception and birth.

Now I'm sure you have already jumped ahead of me. That term "death bed", for instance. How appropriate, you are thinking, for a sector where colleges are queuing up to go bust while politicians of all parties wring their hands and declare "How sad"!

But wait. We are nowhere near the end yet. It can get much worse than this. Let us follow time's swift arrow forward to the end, which is of course the beginning, and see.

The beginning. It is the year 2030. Further education is no more. That is to say FE colleges are no more. In their stead we have one vast concrete bunker, somewhere near Blairsville, formerly known as Milton Keynes.

Inside, everything is spotlessly clean. Vast banks of computer screens blink vacuously across otherwise-empty rooms. Few people are required to tend these screens, though the occasional white-coated technician can be seen loading up the programs to be sent out, via the Internet, to households across Britain.

In another hangar-like room, other technicians feed completed assignments into the marking machines. A third section prepares the Certificates of Maximum Attainment for instant dispatch.

There is no noise from this operation, though noise can still be heard. This is drifting across from the nearby New Labour Camp, where young men from the age of 11 upwards are enjoying intensive boot-camp style drill for heinous crimes involving sheep and loaves of bread.

A plaque on the wall proclaims that following the era of the lecturerless college, we have now arrived at the collegeless college. A gushing quotation from the nation's veteran PM, the Right Honourable Peter Mandelson, confidently predicts that this new "concept for the Thirties" will speedily raise the nation's skills levels "back to and beyond" those currently enjoyed in Afghanistan, Albania and the Dominican Republic.

One word is emblazoned everywhere in the bunker: SUCCESS. This is what further education (a term long since discarded for fear of law suits) is now called.

It is an essential part of the "concept". Thus its inventors (and the early pioneers from the days back before the turn of the century) can truly claim one huge SUCCESS for their ideas.

The middle. It is the year 2002. Further education is still with us. As we know it, unfortunately.

Prime Minister Blair is sharing a platform with his new further education minister, Sir Roger Ward. Both look well-fed and pleased with themselves. They have important announcements to make.

Mr Blair speaks first. He says that he wants to place on record, right at the start of his second term, his gratitude to FE and all who work in it for the way they have continued to deliver efficiency gains.

In these hard times he knows that colleges won't be expecting any more money (beams from Sir Roger) but he does want to recognise the contribution made by the working lecturers.

To this end, the Government will be providing an extra half-day per year training for each and every lecturer - mainly on matters of thrift and humility. Sir Roger, he quips, (more beams) will not be providing this personally, given his well-known lack of qualifications in either of these two departments (general laughter).

Then Sir Roger has his say. Following its successful privatisation, he is pleased to be able to announce yet further deregulation in the FE sector. From now on lecturers are to be given greater freedoms over their contracts of employment. Instead of being bound to one employer, lecturers will now be free to sell their labour wherever they wish. And to avoid any possible charges of exploitation, (beams from Mr Blair) no college will be allowed to pay below the minimum wage of Pounds 2.95 per hour (general applause and astonishment at such generosity).

The end. It is the year 1990. Further education is sick, but doesn't yet know it. A group of unappealing, middle-aged men sit at a table. Each has a pen and a cigarette packet in front of him. A notice on the door reads, "Conservative Party: Education Policy Formulation Committee".

A youth in a double-breasted suit two sizes too large comes bounding in. The other two most noticeable things about him are that he is spotty and about 14.

He looks not unlike Harry Enfield's Tory Boy, only not so bright. He too has a cigarette packet, with some scrawled writing on it, which he is waving excitedly in the air.

He opens his mouth to speak, fails, tries again, then blurts out: "I've had this great idea about how to make further education more efficient!" Stephen Jones is a London FE lecturer.

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