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Where denim was traded for two-piece suits

I SPOTTED a young person the other day. That's not so remarkable, you might think, for someone who works in a college. But this was different. The person in question was with the grown-ups; in fact, he was one of the grown-ups, for all that he looked so scandalously young.

Now that really is a sign of decrepitude, when policemen look about 12 and even the FE lecturers look young. But the point is that with so many jobs going down the Swanee these days, someone new actually coming into the profession is a rare bird indeed.

And seeing this scarce-bearded youth started me thinking. What must FE look like to today's new entrant? How does it strike him? What does he see?

I remember vividly what it looked like to me. The year was 1978 and, strangely, the first thing that struck me was how egalitarian and non-hierarchical things were in my north London college. The fact that I happened to be the newest of the new and the lowest of the low didn't seem to matter. We didn't exactly call one another comrade but, pretty well up to the level of departmental head, that was what we were. It was only at HoD level that the suits were donned.

For anyone below that to wear a suit, or even a tie, would have been seen as an act of betrayal. There was a lot of denim around. And for the women, the ubiquitous dungarees, worn in spite of their convent educations and without any sense of irony. There weren't very many of the men in suits (women weren't allowed in FE management in those days). Apart from the principal and his vice-principal, there was a chief admin officer, and that was about it.

For all the talk of the "good old days", we worked bloody hard. And though targets and action plans were faraway terms of which we knew nothing, we still wanted to hang on to our students and get them through their exams. I remember as if it were yesterday the sense of disappointment when only 12 of the remaining 14 students in my first A-level evening class passed. The addresses are a bit hazy after 25 years in the job, but I can still recall their names.

In some respects we really didn't know we were born. Despite it being a boom time, cuts in provision often seemed to loom large. At long and acrimonious meetings of the lecturers' union Natfhe, we would resolve to fight against them to the last man and woman.

You could take lunch breaks in those days without the current all-pervading sense of guilt. Work was hard, but it was also fun, and when the holidays came round you could actually take them. The pay wasn't a lot, but it was better than in schools, and along with it came the sense of doing something worthwhile. In short, I felt that I had come into a good job.

Now, let us walk a mile in the moccasins of that nice young man (we shall call him Bill) glimpsed across a crowded staff room the other day. What does he make of FE in 2003?

In some respects, I know exactly what Bill sees, but in others I am not so sure. Bill earns less than I did at his age and takes fewer holidays. He teaches more classes and puts up with a lot more crap of the non-teaching variety. The suits are still around (some now worn by women), but there are a lot more of them nowadays.

There are also lots more teachers who no longer teach, and indeed many more staff around the place generally, most of whom sit at computers all day and do things so mysterious and important that Bill can only guess at what they might be.

There is also more fear around for Bill - principally fear of failure, which in practice means not meeting targets. This is particularly the case around inspection time, when fear is palpable and stalks the corridors like Tolkien's black riders.

But is that old sense of egalitarianism still there for Bill? That's a tough one to call for an old recidivist like me. All I know is that in 1978 "line management" was still something you did with your washing, and "management spine" was what gave the principal his backache.

And does Bill think he has come into a good job? And is he having fun? Given all of the above, that might seem unlikely. But Bill is young - and maybe he can still see the academic wood for the "crapademic" trees. I hope so.

Stephen Jones lectures in a south London college

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