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We need more with the abilities of beetles and bats

Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, to say nothing of the gung-ho market addicts in the area of Whitehall, must have been bemused but probably not amused to hear about the outbreak of co-operation and mutual support within the college sector recently.

There were the events in Yorkshire, where a rescue team made up of top managers from a neighbouring college abseiled in to troubled Rotherham College, sorted out the problems, and whizzed back to base to continue their day jobs.

Then there was that management crisis in Manchester, unconnected with Maine Road or Old Trafford, when another quick-fix team was invited in. Now a third college, as part of its portfolio, is offering a save-your-bacon service, having itself been through the fires not so long ago.

None of this fits with the competitive ethos in which we are supposed to flourish or die. Altruism was outlawed at incorporation. Vigour and rigour, the twin gods of the new mythology, were expected to make assassins of us all, not saviours.

So, what are we to make of it? The level of support in these instances goes way beyond the educational equivalent of being nice to your neighbour by fixing their car as a favour, rodding their drains, or watering their tomatoes when they are away. It is more like taking over the family finances, reorganising all the relationships, and flogging off some of their treasured possessions. And then handing the lot over to a grateful new head of clan.

The new principal at Rotherham was indeed grateful, and fulsome in his tributes to the rescuers. Those who knew him in his previous job, vice-principal in a college at the ruthless end of the marketing spectrum, could only wonder whether it was the new elevation or the new trans-Pennine landscape which had changed his perspective so quickly or just plain common sense.

It was Sir William Stubbs, the Harry Houdini of education, who predicted that this sort of thing would happen. Whether this was another example of his renowned forecasting skills, or just three more instances of college managers doing what he told them to do is not clear. Either way, it leaves some questions to be answered.

Firstly, and most obviously, is there some formula which, when applied, rescues colleges from the knackers? A mantra to be muttered when you want to convert a pile of ashes into an airborne phoenix? If there is, is it a secret, or can we all know it and save ourselves a lot of trouble and not a little expense?

A couple of paragraphs in a Further Education Funding Council circular would meet the case, assuming that they would be read. In fact, it's hard to believe that there is anything very mysterious about the process. It must be a combination of the measures which we have all thought about with varying degrees of desperation: cutting here, boosting there, trimming this and postponing that.

Which raises the second question: why cannot the incumbents see what must be done, or, having seen, do it? Are there some messages which can only be heard, understood or believed when articulated by a new voice with a fresh tone and at a new pitch? If so, the sector would be well served by the establishment of a travelling band of bearers of bad news whose role would be to tell it like it is in college after college.

That would be better than taking people away from their real job to do it. But, on reflection, are such bands of doomsters not already in existence and are they not called auditors or inspectors?

The third question is linked to the first two. How come these senior managers can afford to spend so much time in another college? What happens to the shop when they are out? When the fat cats are away all sorts of mice might start to play, or is the implication that management of a college needs to be only a part-time activity? It doesn't seem like that from where I sit.

Of course, collaboration between colleges did continue after incorporation, but it has not usually been at the highest level. Networks of classroom practitioners which in the old days used openly to share ideas and even materials simply went underground and carried on the swap-shop by other means. There have also been continuing contacts between a whole range of staff whose responsibilities lie in support functions like finance, premises and personnel. There is a comfort factor in knowing what the others are up to. All this has been low-key, even surreptitious, but the purpose has been the same: to share good practice, and not to gain some sort of competitive advantage.

The new contracts of employment for lecturers have in many cases included heavy breathing paragraphs about confidentiality and commercially sensitive materials, but it is not clear whether anyone has tried them out in the courts.

No wonder, then, that Gillian Shephard is puzzled. If the approved model is competition, and the colleges insist on collaborating, the required culture change has evidently not taken place. We compete like mad, of course, with schools and private training providers, cheerfully cutting their throats and our prices, and we certainly huff and puff at our college rivals, but, as recent events show, we turn out to be all heart when members of the family fall on hard times.

Which is surprising, given the widely-held view that colleges these days are run by people with the subtlety of a Dyno-Rod trainee, the vision of a bat, and the fastidiousness of a dung beetle. What is overlooked is that college managers have the drive and energy of the first, the anticipatory skills of the second, and share with the third a willingness to get their hands dirty.

Michael Austin is the principal of Rossendale and Accrington Tertiary College

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