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Why is the answer another meeting?

HAVE you ever attended a meeting that was so mind-numbingly boring you lost the will to live? Welcome to the world of education, a world in which our capacity to suffer bureaucratic tedium has developed into an art form worthy of the Turner Prize.

Educational meetings take many forms - planning meetings, consultation meetings, policy meetings, review meetings, meetings about meetings. At a rough estimate, I reckon 50 per cent of these meetings are a complete waste of time.

A proper cost-benefit analysis of their value to institutions would almost certainly conclude that vast sums of public money are being wasted (though the consultants carrying out the analysis would exempt their own meetings from this criticism).

How, then, can we explain the continuing attraction of the "meetings culture"? Several explanations spring to mind. For some people attending meetings provides an excuse for not doing any real work. They drift from meeting to meeting, uttering a few banalities using the currently fashionable discourse (perm any three terms from "values", "citizenship", "sustainability", "social inclusion" and "achievement"), and no doubt convince themselves that they are making a worthwhile contribution.

In other cases, meetings provide the arena in which ego-driven personalities can find expression and be given the attention they seek. Such people particularly enjoy chairing meetings as it usually allows them not only to occupy centre stage but to allocate tasks to others. The power dimension of meetings should not be underestimated.

More fragile characters treat meetings as a form of therapy in which they can "share" anxieties and experiences and feel "supported" by the sympathetic noises of colleagues. Such support may be commendable but I would suggest that it is best given in informal contexts.

A reading of the minutes of many organisations reveals that the same issues are revisited again and again without making any evident progress. The lack of clear action points with an indication of who is responsible for taking things forward and the expected time-scale is, in many instances, the reason for this failure.

At this point I think I should admit that I myself am not immune from the meetings culture. In my role as a head of department, I hold monthly meetings of staff, based on agendas which colleagues help to construct. I alternate "business" meetings with "theme" meetings - the former deal mainly with relatively routine operational matters, while the latter attempt to examine in some depth important policy issues.

The meetings usually last about two hours, though I would like to aim for a one-and-a half-hour limit.

I also set up "short-life working groups" which are asked to come up with recommendations on specific topics - such as the use of accommodation within the department. The fact that these groups have a limited shelf-life (unlike standing committees) gives their meetings a focus and a concern with delivery and action. My only concern is with the name. "Short-life working group" contains a hint of menace, with the prospect of termination, that may not provide the best incentive for staff. Alternative suggestions on a postcard please.

These arrangements are far from perfect (as I am sure my colleagues would confirm), but they represent an attempt to make meetings more purposeful and less tedious. We can all do a little to counteract the excruciating dullness that is characteristic of the accepted pattern. We can challenge the career bore who uses meetings to ride hobby horses. We can suggest that the incurable loudmouth should try listening to others for a change. And in extreme cases we can throw a (carefully staged) tantrum and propose a vote of no confidence in the chair.

At the very least, it would liven things up.

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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