Who's who in FE food chain

30th July 2004 at 01:00
So that is another one out of the way. Academic years, that is. Another year older and deeper in debt, as the old song has it.

In one sense, as always, it is a relief. In another, it means I have to find something to write 850 words about when nothing is happening and there is no one around to read the result.

Except you, of course. You are generally still hanging around at this time of year, aren't you? Trying to catch up on all those tasks the daily onslaught made you set aside, but finding it impossible to get down to anything without the adrenalin fix that comes from spending every day in a building with thousands of teenagers and a horde of litigious adults.

According to my postbag, there are only three of you who still buy the late July and early August editions of The TES and get as far as the back page of FE Focus. One is an old friend, the other is the head of a girls' school somewhere posh, and the third is clearly as mad as a hatter. Are you all still out there?

So now there is August for us to get through, with just the thin gruel of summer schools and a few other course stragglers to get our teeth into. And all the time the prospect of the mad days of enrolment are getting ever nearer.

Barely 200 words yet, the "tools" wordcount tells me. How the devil am I going to reach the last line?

I rang the only colleague I could find who was still in the country to ask what I should write about. I caught him just before he boarded his flight to his second home in Spain, or possibly his third home in France.

"I haven't a clue," he said. "Your pieces always rubbish things and everything looks great to me. Did I tell you I got premium funding this year? Got my fourth house lined up in Prague - I'm getting in before the boom drives prices up.

"And I'll be coming back to plan-led funding, less audit, three-year budgets and the extra pound;130 million that Charles Clarke chucked in the pot last month. Oh, and no clawback - except in-year, of course, but that doesn't count.

"Lighten up man! Things have got a lot better since the Learning and Skills Council went regional, haven't they? Why don't you just say, 'Mark's in his heaven and all's well with the world?' " A bit later, clearly suffering from too much gin at altitude, he sent me a text: "Why not just do a list of all the individuals, groups and organisations that live off the FE sector? No words, just a long list of names to show the real cost of control through regulation and bureaucracy.

You could easily fill a page with that and live up to your reputation for whingeing."

I agree with you three. I thought it a daft idea, too. Until I started counting. There were some tricky decisions. Do you count all auditors as one or do you list them individually? Were the exam boards one dragon or a multi-headed hydra? And what was the difference between computing giants Becta, Nilta, NLN and Jisc? And were they net contributors or detractors?

In the end, I decided to put them all down as individual bodies in their own right. I stopped adding law firms when I got to 13 and accountants and audit firms at 20. "Other consultants" reached 25 and trainers and developers, not including the Learning and Skills Development Agency, reached 28.

Examination bodies were relatively few in number, although they accounted for pound;1m from my college alone, so I gave them an honorary 20 mentions.

Architects, designers and builders do at least leave a legacy, but at a hugely inflated price.

I did not count the Department for Education and Skills and the Learning and Skills Council, of course, because they provide the dosh in the first place - well one of them does, so what does the other one do?

There are also 47 LSC boards if you want to throw their names in the ring.

Here, I was generous and didn't. I was well into my stride by now: software houses, virtual learning companies, University for Industry and its apparatus, bus companies, train companies, insurance agents, risk-assessment managers, photocopier manufacturers, European commissioners and assorted government office bureaucrats, regional development agencies, education business partnerships, copyright licences and, before long, the Charity Commissioners.

I could not believe I'd got this far down the list without mentioning the Office for Standards in Education and the Adult Learning Inspectorate.

Where does their money come from? How did the Church fund the inquisition?

I have the finished list beside me and it comes to exactly 865 words. I am astonished that there is any money left in the sector to spend on staff and students. The next task is to put the names into four categories: essential and cost-effective (bus companies); essential but rip-offs (lawyers and insurers) and non-essential (just about everyone else). And the Association of Colleges is somewhere between the first two.

That has cheered me up for the journey through the August dog-days. Are you three still awake?

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield college

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