Why we cope with angst over funding and paperwork

Anne Smith

I feel sorry for picture editors. Told that this column would require my photograph I uttered a sharp word of distaste. "Everyone always says that, " she said. People don't like the way they look.

All staff, students and visitors to our college have to wear ID cards. Students know that it is important that we should be able to identify intruders who come in looking for a fight or seeking to take college equipment into private ownership.

All the same, many students wear their ID cards where they can't be seen. When asked why, they say they hate their photographs.

If the staff feel the same, they needn't worry. For the first time, and before the academic year is two months old, many of them look worse than their photographs. Before the summer tan has faded, eyes are exhausted and new lines have appeared on faces.

Improved induction procedures, students guided and counselled as never before - and guided and counselled again when, despite our best efforts, they decide they're on the wrong courses - more new students, more existing students preparing UCAS forms: all these are taking their toll.

Alongside these activities are those relating to last year and next year. End-of- year accounts are to be finalised. Examination and course analyses from 19945 must inform what is going on this year, current careers guidance jostles with the search for accurate information on last year's destinations and giving advice to students on possibilities for a gap year. The brochure is out for 19967, open evenings for 1996 take place in October, in November we review progress on the strategic plan so that we can plan provision for next year.

Teachers packing yet more students into their classrooms may still agree that support staff are the unsung heroes and heroines of incorporation. They, too, have been affected by the growth in student numbers. After last year's disappointing failure to meet targets, they are masochistically relieved to find themselves coping with increased pressure on the learning centres, and finding new strategies to allow maximum access to resources.

The nature of support staff jobs has changed, and their responsibilities have increased. They are managing teams where teams never existed before. They are taking part in the college appraisal process, which is based on school teacher appraisal. They, like the teachers, are involved in planning, target-setting and conducting health and safety risk analyses in their areas. They are also drawing on the staff training budget. Increasingly, as they become more involved in supervising student learning areas, support staff are seeking training to help them help the students.

A science technician is now a trained FE teacher, and admin assistants turned librarians have acquired library qualifications. The estate manager, now a qualified health and safety officer, is taking a further course to enable him to train other staff and also lecturing students on health and safety. The open-learning assistants are developing their own skills so that they have more to offer their students.

All these show themselves to be role models for the lifetime learning for which we are trying to prepare the students. They also show a drawing together of staff which is a far cry from the days when "support" meant supporting teachers, not supporting the "delivery" of services to students.

And not only staff. One of our independent governors, who is taking a counselling course, is doing her practical work at the college, thus enabling us to extend our counselling service. The blurring of traditional roles means that we can work together with more understanding of each other and ideas can be shared more easily.

As part of the review, staff and students contribute to strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analyses. These are becoming far less fragmented than they were. We are all conscious of the threats which may face us. But there are opportunities too, and the implementation of changes so far, and those planned for the future, are dependent on the staff's ability to recognise the opportunities and their willingness to grasp them.

I'm glad we decided to keep our traditional half-terms. Although some of the students insist on coming in to carry on with their work, most of the staff can catch up on sleep and paperwork before facing the second half of the term. And although stress can lead not only to exhaustion but even to an occasional loss of perspective, they deserve the break. Teachers and support staff alike remain generally cheerful and friendly. Student evaluation continues to be positive about they get.

Perhaps all the extra paperwork, the overcrowding, the worries about funding, haven't managed to obscure our conviction that we are involved in one of the most important and worthwhile jobs we could be doing. And we haven't got time to be bored, either.

Anne Smith is principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon.

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