My college has just been inspected and it has changed my view of who is running the show. I have become a follower of Plato, just like the inspectors.
Plato was not a what-you-see-is-what-you-get man. He believed we see only an imperfect form of an ideal version of things which exists somewhere in a world of ideas, and for which we yearn throughout our life, but of which we can only produce a poor copy.
I have always had a problem with this. I could handle an ideal form of Beauty, Love, Justice and see that, in my lowly human way, I could hanker after them and try to copy them. I could even agree with an ideal form of something as mundane as a bed and have spent my life looking for a good night's rest; but I have trouble with cockroaches and slag heaps. I was brought up in a mining village and a cockroach was the only pet we could afford. But I have to tell you that I would not mind if I saw neither cockroach nor slag heap again, even in an ideal form, perhaps especially in an ideal form.
And anyway, where is the evidence of these ideal forms, I used to ask. Until I met the inspectors, that is. They are followers of Plato. Not only do they know that an ideal form of FE exists, they have the evidence because they have inspected it and are anxious to tell you just how imperfect and lowly a copy of the ideal form stands before them in your college. The ideal form of FE is published for all to see in A5 manuals on the curriculum, key skills, careers education and in reports on local colleges with 11 grade 1s.
But didn't the inspectors have their template of perfection even before they entered the first college ever to be inspected? I think they do believe that somewhere in the world of ideas, along with Truth, Beauty, Love, Beds, Cockroaches and Slag Heaps, is the ideal FE college. Well actually, and I can reveal this exclusively to readers of The TES, there are two. The first is the Pearly Gates College of Further and Much Higher Education and the second is the College of the Damned and related studies. The fact that every other material object has only one ideal, whereas FE has two, explains why we have problems finding a single voice to represent us and the endless squabbling we all enjoy so much.
And, it seems, inspectors who have gone before pass the news back to their colleagues, who set it out in circulars. It is unfortunate, then, that inspectors - themselves images of earthly perfection - only ever get to see the Pearly Gates College once they pass on. The messages beamed back to the Chief Inspector in the government-sponsored seances at Cheylesmore House are thus a little one-sided and not terribly helpful to most of the sector.
Retention rates in Pearly Gates are high. There was a little drop-out difficulty in the early days, which led directly to the establishment, in the infernal regions of the College of the Damned. Since then there have been no withdrawals and though no one ever completes, everyone achieves. Student surveys show l00 per cent satisfaction rates, though there is some concern about the induction process which can sometimes mean a long, uncertain wait in purgatory. Roles and responsibilities are fairly clear. St Peter is in charge of admissions, student services are looked after by the saints, Jesus has charge of curriculum and there is no doubt who is college principal.
Things are not quite so well ordered in the College of the Damned. At incredible personal cost I have obtained an extract from the inspectors' report on the college's support for students:
"Advice and guidance before enrolment is based on a hedonistic approach. The college employs a variety of recruitment methods including every form of temptation to sin and a home page on the Internet which requires a credit card to enter. The prospectus is gaudy, salacious and has unique inducements on page three. The college offers very broad pathways for those inclined to the straight and narrow.
"The college is unique in its complete absence of a tutorial system, counselling and welfare service. There is, however, a full appraisal system in place run by the assistant principal in charge of permanent torment. The college has not applied for an Investor in People award."
So there is the problem. Inspectors, as followers of Plato, compare us all with the Pearly Gates model. It doesn't matter where your college is your students are expected to be angels, your staff divine, your support services infinite and your most senior manager omnipotent and omniscient.
And I have the answer: Cloning. We need worry no more whether our ability to clone represents an advance for humankind, or is a backward step. I offer myself as the first principal to step aside for someone cloned with any college with perfect management as defined by FE inspectors. Confident that all my staff will follow where I lead and that the Further Education Funding Council will offer appropriate guidance through the funding mythology to encourage others, we can be as sure as Heisenberg will allow that before too long we will all satisfy the inspectors' requirements wherever we find ourselves, however broad our mission and regardless of the competition.
Graham Jones is the principal of Sutton Coldfield College