Why we should celebrate lecturers who quit

27th July 2001 at 01:00
Silence, like wealth, is relative, but July is never the noisiest month in colleges. Raucous full-time courses have finished, but there is the persistent hum of part-time programmes through the summer.

The Learning and Skills Council thinks that it invented bite-size courses in the dog days of July. It is no doubt thrilled at the sounds of unfamiliar bums colliding with seats. The fact is that taster courses are the sort of pre-recruitment wheeze which alert colleges have had in their summer plans for years. The only difference this time is that we have to register the snacking students with LearnDirect (something to do with helping them hit their targets) and also put on the bite-size programmes for nothing.

It was Sir Keith Joseph, onetime education secretary under Mrs Finchley, who reduced an audience of hardened FE types to a stunned silence, broken only by apoplectic spluttering. He had offered an inspirational idea to help colleges to reach out to new students: try offering classes in the evening, he said.

The Learning and Skills Council went a stage further. It gave examples of catchy topics that we could try during July. The banal list could have been lifted from any half-awake college's existing summer programme. With this advice, the LSC put itself in the frame for the Keith Joseph Teaching Award. The students? Grandmothers. The subject? Sucking eggs.

And it's not just courses that keep going. The plants in the horticulture area need watering, and somebody has to feed the creatures in the small animal care cages. All through the summer there are sad students who can't stay away. They haunt the foyer, hoping for glimpses of absent friends, leaf through journals in the library pretending interest in abstruse articles on subjects about which they know nothing. Caretakers turn overnight into painters and decorators. The building industry has its busiest time, with horrifically expensive projects to complete between the beginning of July and mid-August, and the return to normality.

But it is a changed normality. Not only with a new student intake but staff are different too. July has a dying fall, as colleagues sift their desks, and set off for new jobs.

This year the migration has been more like a stampede. This may be down to the extra money now available for teachers in schools and sixth-form colleges, or it may be the opportunities now opening up in business.

Whatever the reason the rush for the exits has been almost unseemly. Almost but not quite. If colleges are not losing good staff every year they are not doing their job properly. We bang on about changing students' lives, and we should do the same for staff. If other employers value our brightest and best enough to give them a job, that's a compliment, not a threat. Some of the best staff, now moving on, replaced those deemed irreplaceable.

Which brings me to the end not only of this piece, but of the whole series. For a decade The TES has given me a monthly chance to say whatever I wanted. In practice I have always written about further education, not because it is the only thing that interests me, far from it, but because there has been so much to say about it. I am stopping now not for lack of comments to make, but because I am retiring. An institutional base is what gives you credibility: without it you write as one standing, nose pressed up against the window, unable to see or hear clearly what's going on inside.

Over the years many people have written in response to things I have said, usually in tones of horror, indignation or, more rarely, with approval. To them, and others who dipped in from time to time, my best wishes as I wipe the disk and head for the hills.

Michael Austin retires as next month as principal of Accrington and Rossendale college

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