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Three strikes and you're in

Standing on the picket line may not bring FE just rewards, but at least you have a laugh, says John Bateman

MOST people in Blairite Britain will go through their whole working lives without experiencing the dubious, bitter-sweet pleasure of standing on a picket line. Writing as someone who has, I just hope that you, dear reader, if you happen upon one, do not cross it.

Working in the unloved and unlovely further education sector will at least give you opportunities to reflect on where you stand (not too near the traffic is my tip - drivers like an easy target) on this matter. For such is the woeful state of funding, this Cinderella of the UK educational system (sorry, that should read English, as the Scots and the Welsh seem to handle things rather better) that strikes seem to be set as a permanent part of the landscape.

On bonfire day ("let's put a rocket up New Labour") FE unions, principally Natfhe and Unison, agreed to stage a day of action. Lecturers could line up alongside librarians, academics could (for once!) join forces with admin, and they could tell the world (hold the front page!) what a bum deal they were all getting. And others in the same categories could show just how much they agreed by driving through their picket line. And did - in our college at least - closing 40 nationally.

Now forget whatever you might have read circa 1985 about Natfhe hard-left militants holding the country to ransom or kicking off a world revolution. Most of that mob took early retirement when it was on offer and are now out in Spain boring each other silly about student politics circa 1969. Today's striker is more likely to be obsessed with whether he set the students sufficient work and how to pay the mortgage (OK, maybe not in that order of priority). Plus, there is the lost day's pay to think about.

But solidarity brings its own rewards. There is the humour, mutual respect, and yes, a certain self-righteousness which may not be unconnected with being, er, in the right on this occasion.

There is no doubt, though, that it can be a thoroughly demoralising experience. Morale is inversely related to the numbers of cars which pass through - happiness is an empty car park. But pass through they do, looking ashamed, embarrassed or indignant in different measure. Words are exchanged. Memories are made of this. And you wish you had a quid for every time you hear the phrase: "I did not know there was a strike on today." You will almost certainly get the odd "toot" of support from a passing motorist (cheer and wave in response), and a real collector's item is the guy driving the white van who slows down and yells "why don't you get a proper job!" (presumably driving a white van) and speeds off, doubtless pleased with his contribution to the debate on the future of post-16 education in a knowledge-based economy.

If you are lucky andor well organised, you will get a few lines in the local rag and even a picture ("don't smile, we are meant to be angry") which can subsequently be of use for a caption competition in the staffroom.

Eventually, with the dead horse flogged beyond recognition, you will melt away (heads held high, please) to the pub or home to catch up on your marking. Who knows, even Tony Blair himself might have noticed. You have done your bit. When - sorry, if - the pay rise comes, then you know that it was your efforts (collectively) that won it. However - and to rather dampen the euphoria generated by the extra 0.6791 per cent (or whatever) that your Arthur Scargill impersonation gained - you just might want to reflect on how you came to park your career in a sector that pushes you into such action.

John Bateman is a business lecturer at Northbrook College, Sussex

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