When even the brilliant get the old heave-ho

18th April 1997 at 01:00
The news of retirements and redundancies in the sixth-form college just three miles from us came as no surprise. As with so many other places around the country, the college had overspent, money had to be saved, so personnel had to be pruned. Some, mostly veterans, had welcomed the chance to quit. Not Janice, though. She was being made to go.

Janice is - should that be was? - one of those teachers whose enthusiasm both for her subject and her students quickly gains her a reputation far beyond her own place of work. As a head of English just turned 50, she gave as much time to the least as to the most capable of her students, spent hours dreaming up novel approaches to her teaching, and was permanently available for private and often lengthy sessions with students who asked for them. At all levels, her results consistently outshone those of other colleges.

It was easy to see why she was regularly described, by colleagues as well as students, as "incredible", "amazing" and "brilliant". At my own college, English teachers knew full well that they had to make every attempt to match standards elsewhere if their own intake was not to be affected. During recruitment, the cannier parents were given to dropping Janice's name as evidence of special talent available not too far away. The same happened at other local colleges. In such circumstances, paragons can sometimes be thought more of a curse than a blessing, and Janice was no exception.

But everyone was downcast at the news of her imminent departure, not least because of the way in which it had come about. Redundant? Impossible, people gasped. Had not the college management considered the effect of her going on the students? Did they not value the extraordinary success she had achieved over the years - success that few others around the country, let alone the county, could ever hope to emulate? Did they not realise that they were throwing away the pearl richer than all the tribe?

As ever with such matters, astonishment soon gave way to reflection. It was not long before Janice was being held up as a victim of a system that, increasingly, hides unappealing realities beneath an overlay of brassy hyperbole.

In common with many other colleges, over the past five years Janice's had changed almost out of all recognition. Forced by incorporation to compete for students, the college management had implemented a large and costly building programme. The results looked wonderful: an airport-style reception area, a plush student common-room instead of an old portable building, and several showpiece "teaching areas" (the use of the word "classroom" was discouraged).

But such changes matter little if nobody knows about them; in due course, therefore, a marketing and publicity manager, complete with his own secretary, was engaged on a salary equivalent to that of a senior teacher. A new logo, designed and market-tested by an advertising agency, soon appeared on thousands of glossy brochures that featured a mission statement and promises of "excellence" and "quality" in all things. In no time at all, the college name was everywhere: on buses, in newspapers, on the cinema screen, even behind the goal at the city football club.

The problem was, of course, that every college in the area was doing the same. And, over time, it became obvious that some were doing it rather better than others. Their brochures were bigger and brighter, their overseas trips were more adventurous, they were more adept at securing column inches in the local press. Few, if any, had teachers to match Janice, but that didn't seem to matter much.

Somewhat like Janice, the rest is now history. Increasingly desperate to boost its intake, the college overspent wildly. After several crisis meetings, management determined that the most traditional way of making savings was still the best. Janice and others got the old heave-ho; the full management team, publicity manager included, stayed.

So did the brochures and the advertisements, all still promising "excellence" and "quality" in a college where departed colleagues' students will be shared among those who remain, thereby making classes bigger and teaching more difficult. Morale has never been lower, not least among those who now know that acknowledged brilliance as a teacher offers no protection against being judged unaffordable. "She's great," a student said of Janice the other day.

"Yes," said her teacher. "So what?"

Megan Matthews is a lecturer at a south-coast college

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