A former colleague of mine retired about ten years ago. When I asked him why he was leaving, he replied with one phrase.
“The halcyon days of FE are over,” he said. You may feel that he was a man of prophetic gifts. He was also a brickie working in a department of electricians. The next day, one bright spark had stuck a poster of him up on the staffroom wall, cheerfully misquoting him.
“The halogen days are over!” it read. Dark humour?
The Hay Day* of this blog’s title is a proprietary brand, not a typo. It’s an App. My entire household** are now using the entire sophisticated electronic wizardry of their smartphones merely to make-believe that they are highly successful farmers developing increasingly impressive farms.
At any hour of the day, and often night, I am likely to be disturbed by a disembodied Moo, Baa, or a low sustained booming noise coming from my partner’s handbag to inform her that the cows need milking, the sheep shearing, or that the ship is about to dock to collect her ordered produce. Preoccupations of what I was mistakenly considering to be ‘real life’ are pushed to one side in the interests of simulated agriculture.
One aspect of this game has caught my attention though. It has a PEGI 3 rating, which means that it is suitable for all ages. There is nothing in it to scare the children. In other words, Hay Day farming does not use abattoirs. When the pigs have been sufficiently fattened, they are placed into some sort of high pressure sauna contraption that sweats their ready-made bacon right off them. They never have to leave their pen. They emerge from their ‘saunas’ in rude good health, pencil-drawn thin and ready for their next feed.
Which brings us back to FE. Despite the Chancellor’s recent apparent Spending Review generosity, the mantra of ‘more-for-less’ has embedded itself deeply in our psyche, coiled itself around and into our DNA. Whether on an institutional basis, or by regions across the country, efficiency and cost-effectiveness have become our watchwords. And that is why we must guard against engaging in the Hay Day version of Further Education.
That PEGI 3 version of FE is very scary. Those who can leave, leave. Those who are left, are left doing what they do, and also covering some of the leavers’ tasks that we thought wouldn’t need to be done, but now find that we can’t do without.
More-for-less cannot mean that we keep doing what we have always done, and keep doing it in the same way, only using ever fewer people and ever less resource to do it with. We cannot run round and round our pen, faster and faster, in ever-decreasing circles, and still hope that our sector will emerge from its sauna of severances anything but stick-thin in terms of capacity, resilience, and innovation.
More-for-less can only be justified if it is also better-for-less. It only works if we end up working more ‘clever’ not just working more. Some of the instinctive finance-driven responses to this new financial reality have been as thoughtful as jerking knees: close buildings; cancel courses; disband support services; move away from hard-to-reach and hard-to-teach; work longer; work more.
Could pedagogy-driven responses think our way into better and complementary solutions? There is so much that we need to be more clever about: clever about how we free up our teachers to do what they do best – teaching and developing teaching; clever about freeing up our leaders and managers to lead and manage – not just to document their proficiency in leadership and management; clever about how we work with other services to join our services up, to fill in the gaps and to unduplicate the duplication.
Of course the worst time to try to think about all this cleverness is the very time when the cows are mooing, the sheep are bleating and the low sustained booming noises are booming lowly and loudly in a sustained way. An even worse time, though, will be to do it when others have done the thinking for us, and taken the decisions that we would never ourselves have decided.
Which is why many colleges now are thinking hard and thinking fast; and sometimes thinking the unthinkable.
The halcyon days are long gone, and good riddance. I was never a great fan of smoke-filled staffrooms and long liquid lunches. But we might all just be a bit more clever than we think. Just imagine what it could be like if now was about to become the start of FE in its heyday…
*Hay Day by Supercell. Other farm simulation games are available.
**Except me. Just in case you wondered.