Who will pay to create renaissance adults?

1st June 2001 at 01:00
This time, I thought, I really am going to do it. Force myself to make my mark on the ballot paper next to the name of the Labour party candidate.

After all, I reasoned, it would only be a case of reverting to the norm. Haven't I always voted Labour as a matter of course? It's in my blood, my genes. As my grandfather used to say, Labour is the party of the workers. And as he worked all his life with pick and shovel, that was that.

All right, so I did have a minor flirtation with the Greens in the Euro-elections. And yes, there was the little matter of voting "Ken for London" in direct contravention of the wishes of his Tony-ness. But they were protest votes. As the suits in Millbank Tower know so well, general elections concentrate minds. Then it comes down to a straight choice between Labour and the Tories: good versus evil, as I might once have seen it.

So that was it. I had made up my mind. To grit my teeth and hold my nose and vote to shut out Hague and Widdecombe and all the nasty little John Townend sound-a-likes, now keeping their heads firmly in the "down" position out there in the leafy hinterland of middle England.

Then I was hit by the Blunkett factor. On the face of it, it wasn't much. Just a short opinion piece in The Guardian's education pages in which, we were told, the "first further education lecturer to make education secretary tots up Labour's post-16 record."

The article got off to a bad start. Labour's further education policies, the minister opined, were akin to the great working-class self-help movements of Victorian industrial Britain. Following in the footsteps of those heroic pioneers, Labour were planning to bring about their own "renaissance of adult learning". All good platitudinous politician's stuff you might think. But pretty bloody infuriating if you happen to have day-to-day contact with the current crop of Jude the Obscures.

Teaching, as I do, on access courses for inner- city students, I cannot help but notice that there are fewer of them coming forward since Mr Blunkett's party has been in power. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that grants have ended, tuition fees have started and all those prospective renaissance men and women face the unenviable prospect of ending their courses at least pound;10,000 in debt.

Worse was to ollow: not so much for what our first lecturer-minister said as for what he didn't say. The remainder of the article was pretty standard stuff - a recapitulation of what Labour had already done for the sector plus a summary of what was still to come.

In all of this, however, there was not one word about those whose job it is to bring about the so-called renaissance. Yet the article appeared only a week before exasperated lecturers were due to go on national strike in protest at the wretched level of their pay. How could this be, I wondered? A minister of the People's Party - the Workers' Party - not noticing that most of his workers were at the end of their collective tether?

Of course, he does notice. It is simply that he deems it impolitic to be seen to notice immediately before an election. If cornered (a condition New Labour ministers spend a lot of time and energy ensuring they avoid) he would no doubt bleat on about the millions he has pumped into FE since 1997 - including various sums intended to find their way into the pockets of lecturers.

None of the money has found its way into mine. Nor into those of the members of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education up and down the country who were prepared to lose a day's pay and vital pre-exam teaching sessions in order to get their message across.

For all Blunkett's reassuring words - "Learning and Skills Councils ... a million Individual Learning Accounts ... basic skills for three-quarters of a million people" - things are still dire for the "workers" he purports to lead. Nothing has been done to reduce the increased workloads, longer hours and sky-high stress that came in on the coat-tails of incorporation. Despite much-publicised teacher shortages, far too many colleges are still suffering the axing of courses and the wholesale sacking of lecturers.

We are here Mr Blunkett and we are not happy. Shoving your fists in your ears and singing loudly from the New Labour hymn sheet will not make us go away. There may not be a Ken to vote for this time round, but there are the Lib Dems - who do at least acknowledge that we exist.

So I can't do it after all: can't vote as my father, grandfather and younger self once did. Can you?

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a London FEcollege

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