Along with his colleagues, Stott chuckled at the image on the workroom noticeboard. A picture from the First World War showed a row of men, each with his hands on the shoulders of the man in front, pitifully shuffling along. Bandages over the men's eyes told of their being victims of a gas attack.
But someone had changed the picture. Some nifty artwork had made it look as though each man was clutching a shocking pink rectangle of paper. Underneath, a caption explained all: "General Studies staff celebrate the award of their D32 certificates."
There was no mistaking the style: Pearce, the department satirist, was at it again. As he had every right to be, thought Stott, himself one of several recent recipients of that same Day-Glo diploma. Then again, Stott knew the story behind the certificates; happily, the awarding body didn't.
Some weeks previously, Minder, Stott's head of department, had marched into the workroom. Staff sighed. Yet again, Minder had the wild-eyed look that showed that he had been leaned on by the principal.
They soon learned why. Along with the other heads, he had been ordered to get staff to sign up for the new National Council for Vocational Qualifications' assessor's award (D32). Overnight, everyone would be given the competence to assess anyone in the workplace, training centres or colleges.
"Certificates!" he cried.
"Paid cover for lessons!" he announced.
People looked up.
"Promotions!" he winked.
They soon wished they hadn't. Before long, reports circulated of classes so tedious, people almost had to be stretchered out.
"As much fun as a fortnight in a sock," said one.
The college was slowly gripped by D32 fever. Normally sociable types were seen muttering to themselves in the corners of the common room. Colleagues not given to foul language were heard heaping awful curses on the D32 course supervisor. Some talked of sleepless nights, others of unprecedented domestic discord.
"Your turn soon," they said darkly, when asked for details. "You'll see. " Stott soon found out what they meant. He had booked himself in with the very last bunch, along with the other stragglers and spare parts. Half-way through the first session, he looked around the room. It was a dismal sight.
One man was resting his forehead on the edge of the desk. Another lecturer's eyes looked as though they had rolled to the back of his head. To his left, Pearce was working out vulgar acronyms for NCVQ.
The worst thing was the jargon. It even put the sociologists' lights out. Not only were there "range statements", "performance criteria", and "lead bodies" (Pearce always grunted suggestively at this one), but "unit context sheets", "front-line verifiers" and things called "inferred competences".
A mountain of paperwork topped this mind-mincing stuff. CVs, timetables, performance statements, course syllabuses, evidence summary sheets . . . the list, like the lessons, seemed endless.
At the end of each of the three sessions, the instructor asked brightly: "Now, are there any questions?" The only replies were low moans and heavy sighs. With the approach of the deadline for submissions, desperation was added to incomprehension. The humiliation of collective failure became a real possibility. Clearly, something had to be done.
So Pearce made enquiries. A business studies lecturer of limited imagination but legendary fortitude had, it seemed, negotiated the whole D32 business with distinction. Pearce had no sooner heard this than he struck. It was a classic covert operation: visit empty business studies department at twilight, forage in lecturer's drawers, find file, photocopy, substitute own data (largely invented) and bingo! - exemplary portfolios ready for submission.
"Why the surprise?" Pearce asked the course supervisor. "It's your teaching that's done it." Still grinning at Pearce's artwork, Stott recalled the note from the college secretary on his certificate: "This document is difficult to replace if lost. Please store it safely."
Stott had done just that. The previous night he had been reading his small son his favourite Mickey Mouse story. When it was time for lights out, he wondered what to use to mark the page. Then he remembered that morning's post. Of course, he thought; it might have been made for the job.