When did you last see your principal?

26th May 2000 at 01:00
A WHILE ago, I became convinced that there is a secret government farm buried away deep in the countryside that breeds doctors' receptionists. It just didn't seem credible that so many rude and objectionable people could have happened by chance. Nor that they all could have found their way into the one job where their obstructive talents could have such free rein.

These days, however, I no longer find it a problem. Like most people I know, I have given up going to the doctor. As it takes an average of three months to get an appointment, you're going to be either better or dead by the time it comes around anyway.

Now, though, a new and similar conviction has taken over in my mind. This concerns a similarly remote and hidden installation with a production line wholly devoted to the creation of college principals. (In fact, there are probably two lines: one for principals and one for chief executives; same mould, different finish.) The one common characteristic, however, is the key characteristic - invisibility. Or to put it another way: when did you last see your principal?

Think about it. Your principal's photograph is there up at the front of the building, just like the one you see of the duty manager at your local Macdonald's. But do you actually see the person around the place any more? Like corn crakes and Ford Prefects, they seem to have vanished from the face of the earth.

No doubt it's something to do with the way colleges are getting bigger all the time. And the fact that those in charge of educational institutions are no longer expected to have anything to do with education itself.

You certainly don't see them at meetings any more. If you're lucky, you might catch a glimpse of one of the ubiquitous deputies in their stead. Suddenly vice-principals have real work to do again; no longer do they spend their days polishing their CVs and waiting for that moment when the irksome "vice" slips from their title and they know they have landed the BIG ONE!

The principal, we assume, is at other, more important meetings - the meetings that lecturers don't get invited to. The nearest we get to these is the limousines in the car park, or the

occasional glimpse of the lunch being carried in.

But then maybe we've got it all wrong. Maybe the big cars and clanking of mayoral chains are all part of some elaborate subterfuge. And while all eyes are on the front door, the pricipal is busy slipping out the back to mingle, unrecognised, with the foot soldiers as they battle it out in the classrooms. Like Henry V on the eve of Agincourt, they are doing the rounds, disguised as a humble lecturer, offering a word of praise here, an encouraging quip there - favouring us, in the immortal words of the Bard, with "a touch of Prinny in the night!"

No, not very convincing that one is it? You don't see them at work and you don't see them at play either. Can you remember a party - predictably stuffed with assorted FE folk, as all parties seem to be - where someone as exalted as a principal was present? They just don't happen any more.

Actually, until quite recently, I had a much better idea as to what headmasters looked like than their counterpart big cheeses in colleges. I used to encounter them regularly at university admissions conferences in the days before they became too grand to attend such workaday gatherings. You could tell they were headmasters because they all wore blazers and shouted at you if you ran in the hotel corridors.

For the ultimate in disappearing principals, however, you need look no further than my friend Harold. Harold works in one of the country's larger colleges and claims never to have actually seen his principal in all the 10 years he has worked there.

In fact, he says that no-one he has ever spoken to has seen him. They know it is a him, because they hear his voice every day, booming out from his favoured mode of communication, the college tannoy.

Harold has developed this fantasy (he says it's better than work) in which he and a posse of his pals set out to storm the inner sanctum and unmask the man they call The Voice. Armed only with a whiteboard marker and a copy of the college's grievance procedure, they take the executive lift to the fourth floor.

Corridor after corridor opens up before them: grim, faceless passages punctuated only by the doors to the offices of the great man's sub-managers and accountants. At last, they reach the door that they have been searching for: PRINCIPAL. They push it open.

Inside they find a huge desk on which is positioned a pair of sunglasses and an uncoiled bandage. A cassette player is fixed in a loop: the voice endlessly encourages students not to hit each other and lecturers to meet their targets.

But the chair is empty...

Stephen Jones lectures at an FE college


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