Where would we be without stagehands?

12th January 2007 at 00:00

When Archimedes ran around shouting "Eureka!", he was just out of his bath, where it had occurred to him to measure the volume of an oddly shaped object (like himself) by measuring the water it displaced.

When Isaac Newton was hit by a falling apple, he had a brainwave about gravity.

Their names glisten in the history of scientific discovery. But who filled the bath and mopped the floor afterwards? Who shook the tree? They were support staff.

Colleges perform great feats of ingenuity: allocating classrooms for thousands of students, keeping them fed, tracking their progress, organising examinations, paying bills, managing libraries, servicing hundreds of computers and keeping the place safe and clean. It's all done by hewers of wood and drawers of water, little of it acknowledged.

Show me a principal who has made the work of the support staff the highlight in a speech about the college and I will fricassee my favourite fedora.

It used to be worse. Support or ancillary staff are terms which understate the importance of those who do this work, but they used to be the frankly dismissive "non-teaching staff".

A theatre programme features the actors, but also lists stagehands, lighting engineers, box office and marketing staff. Teachers do the conspicuous, glamorous bit. They get the credit when students succeed. Yet, like actors, they could not strut their stuff but for the people in the background.

Can this all be a hangover from the days when finance functions, personnel issues, building maintenance and staff recruitment were the responsibility of the local authority? Back then, the nameless went about their routine business out of sight and out of mind.

Colleges which have a clear, whole-college ethos enjoy better relations between different categories of staff. It is a big part of being a college at ease with itself, one in which co-operation and an understanding of the roles of others goes along with, and may be a cause of, targets being achieved.

When this kind of rapprochement happens, it often starts with those who run the student information system. Once feared as agents of an alien power (the Further Education Funding Council), their work consisting entirely of feeding the organisation's insatiable appetite for data, they are now colleagues providing the information essential for helping students to succeed. If support staff are not encouraged to see how their work fits into the overall context, they stand in a servant to master relationship with teachers and managers, touching forelocks and bending knees.

By all means let the non-support staff take proper pride in what they, through their students, achieve. It's a tough job. But when not demonstrating the use of a bain marie or analysing Napoleon's Egyptian campaign, they might reflect on how unsupportable life would be if they had to pick their own apples or fill their own bath.

Mike Austin is a former principal of Accrington and Rossendale college Lancashire

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