Wanted: one previously trendy revolutionary talker

7th February 1997 at 00:00
To: Chris Woodhead, Chief Inspector, OFSTED (Office for Standards in Education).

Dear Chris, I expect you'll be surprised to receive a letter from someone in further education. Generally speaking, schools people like yourself don't know very much about us and what we do. They tend to think of FE (if they think of FE) as being peopled by a bunch of rude mechanicals doing dreary things round lathes inside 19th-century buildings that are too gloomy even to be prisons.

But last week I came across a book you'd written back in the days when you had a proper job and sensible hair, and that started me thinking. Of course the book is a bit dated but, as you might have heard, 20-year-old textbooks are about all we can afford in FE these days, now that the Government has decided that we should give it money rather than the other way round, which, I'm sure you'll agree, is the more normal arrangement for funding education.

If I was honest, I'd have to confess that, when I first picked up your book, I'd hoped it would provide me with some evidence to hold against you. I'd heard you'd been a bit trendy in your youth, and I was thinking perhaps this might be a way of catching you out. Maybe you'd written about the educational virtues of LSD or championed the use of encounter groups for teaching the apostrophe.

But no such luck. All I found was a dull, middle-of-the-road textbook aimed at forming young minds into keen machines for passing the O-level (as it then was) in English language. Never mind. It started me thinking about you and how much we could use a man like you in FE.

Yes, I know that might be a shock to the old system, Chris. To be wanted by someone who teaches for a living. But the thing is, you talk about education. True, there doesn't seem to be anyone in schools who actually likes what you say about it, but at least you talk about it. Nobody does that in FE any more. They stopped doing it in 1992. All our bosses will talk about these days (all they ever think about) is money.

And it doesn't stop with the bosses either. It goes right the way down the line. Just think about it: every college in the country full of people obsessed by one thing and one thing only. Money, money, money.

Try talking about educational issues in any FE meeting and people look at you as if you're simple-minded. "How does that relate to the funding mechanisms?", they ask. Or, "How will that help us to maximise our income?". And then they smile and shuffle their papers and ever so gently steer the conversation back to proper topics such as growth targets, units of activity and average levels of funding.

So, Chris, believe it or not, we want you. There's a role for you in further education. A purpose. A mission. You might even be pleasantly surprised to find that there are some people here who'll listen to what you say. After all, your big thing is whole-class teaching. And there are still plenty of teachers in FE (if that's not a contradiction in terms) who'll say amen to that.

Now this will make you laugh, but do you know who in FE is still head over heels in love with group work? The inspectors. That's right, your lot. They just can't get enough of it. Believe me, you are in real trouble in this neck of the woods if an inspector catches you indulging in full-class teaching. And it's no good whining that you had them in groups last week; or that they'll be back in their threesomes chatting about last night's TV programmes in next week's class. It's now that matters to these people, and now is always the time for groupwork.

It's just the same if you're lucky enough to get away from the money talk and go on an INSET day or conference. You've hardly had time to take off your coat and say hello when you find yourself sitting round a flipchart being asked to share your ignorance with three other puzzled participants. Adding your nothing to their nothing is how I've heard it described. And even an old English teacher like yourself knows what four times nothing comes to.

So how about it, Chris? There must be a nice little number for you somewhere in FE. Nobody's going to ask you to do anything nasty to the workforce over here - we've got Roger Ward to do that for us already. And, to be honest, the only thing people will say about your wanting to sack 15 per cent of the workforce is why so few? In FE that's about as many as we're planning to keep.

It doesn't matter that you support Arsenal. Or that you used to get your kicks writing boring textbooks. It doesn't even matter that you buy your wigs from the same shop as Gillian Shephard. You talk about education.

And that, Chris, in further education, would make you a revolutionary.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer in a north London college

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