Tragedy of the college c-words

27th May 2005 at 01:00
Bill Shipley tells how he now treads the boards after 'consultants' are called in

Since returning to work in further education in 2001 after a stint abroad, I have chronicled in these pages the frequent absurdities of being a middle manager in a college struggling to come to terms with the brave new world of FE.

I wrote of the mountains of pap-erwork and strange little rules and regulations, and then I des-cribed the breathless and often painful lead up to a full inspection, when the colour of the notice boards suddenly became more important than the quality of teaching.

Finally, I wrote of in-spection week itself when men and women in grey suits carrying black clipboards hovered outside classrooms and poured over volumes of statistics.

And it is really with the end of the inspection that the story be-gins its final act, and reaches its inevitable and somehow tragic conclusion.

Like all great tragedies, this one was unleashed through pride, ig-norance, blindness and a fatal flaw which left this particular college broken (or rather, broke), blind and without friends in a cruel world. And it all started so well...

The inspection itself was quite a success: lots of good grades and positive feedback. Coupled with the college's oft trumpeted "Category A Financial Status" the fu-ture looked bright. Then the warning signs, distant rolls of thunder, began to appear. Something was rotten in the state of this particular college The middle managers were invited to a small drinks party to celebrate the successful outcome of the inspection. We were served sparkling white wine.

But the chalice was poisoned. When I tried to do the same for my team, I was told I would have to buy the wine out of my own money. "But surely the college paid for that fine Lambrusco we had with the sen-ior management team last week?" I protested. No The assistant principals had dug deep into their own pockets.

But with Category A financial status, surely the college can stretch to a couple of bottles of house red?" Absolutely not. We would all be tightening our belts from now on.

Then the principal and the fin-ancial manager both left. And the belt tightened even more.

From now on, all hospitality, ev-en down to a cup of coffee for a visiting examiner, would have to be agreed in advance with the assistant principal.

Stationery was "centralised", and budgets cut.

The canteen started opening later and closing earlier. All trips had to be self-financing.

Staff found themselves teaching 900 hours per year, losing remission for course management and having to justify every single min-ute of their day.

Then the new principal arrived, like Titus Andronicus, fresh from other campaigns and ready to become emperor of this troubled land. And she brought with her those most terrifying and highly paid harbingers of doom: the consultants.

There was a financial consultant, a rooming consultant, a consultant for internal verification, a consultant with responsibility for Learning and Skills Council funding.

There were so many consultants; there must somewhere have been a consultant to consult all the consultants about the use of consultants. They were all given little rooms, and big rooms in expensive hotels, and given free rein to wander at will, taking notes, frow-ning, discussing, writing reports and feeding back. What did it all mean? We thought we were good. We thought we were a successful college. But if we were, why do we need these people crawling all over us?

Then the bombshell hit: The college had a deficit of nearly pound;1 million. But, in answer to the question: 'Answer me! In what safe place have you bestowed the money?' there was no answer. It was a comedy of errors indeed. Except it wasn't very funny.

In October 2004, and amidst great secrecy and rumour, the principal called an extraordinary meeting of the whole college staff. She announced a major "restructuring". Thirty-two middle management posts would be cut and only 23 created "We will lose some good people," she announced, and my wife swears that, at that point, the principal looked her direct in the eye. Art thou not, fatal vision, a dagger of the mind?

That is exactly what happened. The college did lose some very good people, myself included. The story of those last few months is a tragedy in itself, which perhaps will be told one day elsewhere.

And never was a story of more woe. We were made redundant at Christmas. As if they hadn't hurt us enough. I took my statutory minimum redundancy pay (the equivalent of less than one month) and left. I couldn't face applying for any more jobs in FE, so I have returned to my first love, the stage. I have swapped the world of load-banded funding, programme re-views, self-assessment, GLH (GBH more like), and wretched incorporation, for a life on the road, playing Duncan in MacBeth on a nationwide tour.

Just a few months ago, I was a middle manager in a medium sized rural tertiary college, and I was royally shafted by people I thought I could trust. Now I am about to don doublet and hose and play a king, shafted (and killed) by someone he thought he could trust.

Funny that...

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