Wake me up, I seem to have lost my ethos

IT was a lovely dream. I was captain of a large sailing ship full of passengers of all sorts. Every now and then we'd stop at a port and drop a few or pick a few up.

Occasionally, for no clear reason, a passenger jumped overboard. We'd throw lifebelts into the ocean and call after them; sometimes we hauled them back on board; more often they were lost to sight beneath the waves. But mostly it was plain sailing.

There I was, just coasting along like the rest of you, raising the odd standard if the wind was right and splicing a benchmark or two if I felt like it.

Then suddenly, from the shore, came a loud shout from someone waving a newspaper and pointing to the headline. "Come in GFE, your time's up," he hailed.

I woke with a start - I was sitting at my office desk being shaken awake by the director of finance: "Come on, GJ, time to wake up," he was saying. "Have you seen this?"

He pointed to a headline in an FE journal - Minister tells colleges to clarify their mission and ethos. "What does it mean?"

This is my strength, you see. I am the college's own enigma machine, capable of cracking enemy code in seconds. I know that when a minister boasts of the additional funding FE has received from the Government, this means that core funding has remained at 1996 levels; or if an official says FE is crucial to the Government's plans for social inclusion, he means that colleges should find occupation for all the layabouts who keep breaking into his car.

Those were easy, this was a bit more challenging. After all, our mission was clear: to do as much as we can for as many as possible to the highest possible quality, just like every other college.

"I think it means the minister wants us to specialise," I said. "You see, only governments are clever enough to oversee a wide range of things and make a huge success of them. Lesser mortals and their institutions should identify what knitting they are good at and stick to it.

"Sixth-form colleges are the 16-18 specialists. General FE colleges should clarify their mission by looking after older students and employers."

"I see," the director said. "Sixth-form colleges get better results than general FE for 16-to-18-year-olds, do they, and that's because they are specialists, is it?"

"Exactly," I replied.

Many of them are specialists at being in Surrey and accepting only students called Emma and Simon with excellent GCSE results. This may have caused the Government to arrive at a conclusion with a leap of Olympic standard. And that is where the "ethos" comes in, too.

Ethos is about being posh. Sixth-form colleges in the home counties have it by the bucket-load. You need rolls of honour with names of Oxbridge entrants in gold letters going back to the turn of the century, and all the debating society silverware in a glass showcase in the entrance hall. It helps if you were formerly a grammar school with an ancient foundation and your staff wear gowns.

FE colleges run 16-18 courses just to get some of this ethos stuff but are let down by all the scruffy adults with engineering oil under their fingernails - or the staff, as they're known'

"Got you," beamed the director. "We should stick to adults because that's what we're good at."

"Precisely," I said. "You know where you are with an adult. They're grown up, motivated and come with the same clearly identified needs."

"Well, not quite, " he replied. "A Learndirect student doesn't want the same support as an access student, who is different from a skills-for-life student, who is worlds apart from an employed worker doing workplace NVQ, who has nothing in common with a community access English-as-a-second-language student, or someone responding to a leaflet offering Spanish conversation at her local school in the evenings. Which ones do we want to specialise in?"

"You mean if we teach the full adult spectrum, the logic is to specialise even more and get smaller and smaller."

"Yup, or carry on as we are, 16-18 and all, as specialists in managing diversity."

"Brilliant," I said, "that clarifies our mission and ethos. We are specialists in using economies of scale to meet wide-ranging needs and our ethos is inclusive and comprehensive. Labour governments should like 'inclusive' and 'comprehensive', shouldn't they?"

He shook his head. That night my dream returned. This time the sea was rough and black fins broke the surface around the ship. On deck, my crew was busy checking ID cards and throwing overboard the wrong sort of passengers.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield College

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you