Unscientific evidence for the year of toss

SOMETIMES the spirit of a place can enter into a visitor almost as easily as a resident. You know the feeling. You might only be there on a day trip, but for that brief period of time you are in London, you are a Londoner. And in New York, even if only for a weekend, you can become an honorary New Yorker.

For me the same thing happened this summer when I spent a day in the Costa Brava resort town of Tossa del Mar. Yes, I confess, for those eight hours at least, I was a Tossa.

I wasn't the only one. The place was full of bright pink people sitting around in baseball caps with the word Tossa emblazoned across them. And then, of course, as is often the case abroad, every English person you bumped into was clearly a Tossa, too.

Lest it be thought that this is in danger of degenerating into a "what I did on my holiday" column, I should point out that it is about a vital issue in further education. Because it was while I was in Tossa that I remembered that this was the year I had designated as the Year of the Toss. That is the ten months from September to June when I was actually going to record each and every time I was required to produce a tossy bit of information or fill out a form the purpose of which can only be described as toss!

As we know, there's a lot of it about. That's why a survey, fragmentary and unscientific though mine might be, will provide a valuable piece of documentary evidence. You can't help but notice that all those campaigns against bureaucracy in FE tend to focus on the demands made on colleges from the outside. The workloads of the generals and their armies of number crunchers are paraded for all to see, but no one thinks to record what this means to the poor foot soldier slogging it out on the real field of battle - the classroom.

Now, toss, it must be said, is not a particularly precise word. In order, therefore, to clear up any misunderstandings, I feel I should spell out just what is, and what is not, toss. To start with, anything which actually helps to bring about student learning, I am declaring a toss-free zone. And paperwork which records student achievement, tedious though it often is, is similarly not toss. Publicity and marketing for courses, welfare services for students and schemes that promote more effective management are not toss either. They all serve a purpose.

What does that leave us with? A lot.

Anything to do with targets, for instance, is clearly toss of the first order. Once they might have had some use, but now they are applied entirely indiscriminately, with no thought given as to what is really going to be achieved. Apart from anything else, you can be sure that a good half of them relate to things that the person deemed responsible has no real control over at all.

Trailing in the wake of targets comes the next parcel full of toss: action plans. These are better described as inaction plans, in that very little action is ever taken in relation to any of them. Like other false idols, however, all must fall down and worship them if they are to retain any semblance of credibility. Naturally, they come with their own set of paperwork (or toss) which will require completion, amendment and approval at frequent intervals.

Quality (or anti-quality, as it should be called) is another generator of huge amounts of useless toss. Not surprisingly, much of this involves targets and action plans. Sadly, though, there is a lot more besides, most of it futile, time-consuming and deeply depressing to all who must endure it on a daily basis. "Why don't you just dump all that paperwork and sit down as a group to see how you can improve things?" a non-teacher naively asked me recently.

Then there's all that duplicated work that dozens of student trackers are also paid to do, and the checking and re-checking of statistics relating to destinations, achievements and student retention. Not to mention Investors in Paperwork (sorry, People), the sins committed in the name of professional development and all the dozens of forms relating to appraisal, line management and lesson observation.

I could go on - no doubt I will go on, both during the year and at the end of it, when the accumulated mountain of toss is counted and quantified and laid out for all to see. And what should I do with it all then? Suggestions please (in triplicate, naturally) on a postcard!

Stephen Jones is an FE lecturer

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