History. Everyone and everywhere has one. We all do. We like telling stories. In fact we define our lives through stories. We are surrounded by them: anecdotes, jokes, newspapers, soaps, films, books. That‘s how we understand things. And FE colleges have their history in spades.

I have been knocking around the sector for about 30 years now and every time I go into a college and talk to anyone I get the “history”. I know it’s coming, I just brace myself. “So,” I ask innocently, “why do you do this?”

“Ah well,” they say, “the so and so decided this was a good idea [we go back to 1972 or summat] and then so and so did this, and someone else did that. Before you know it you have an accretion of bonkers stuff and you are looking at a system that no one in their right mind would ever invent unless they wanted to be carted off to Broadmoor. You know, like FE funding systems.

I once worked in a college where the enrolment system was so convoluted that huge queues built up. It was like Soviet Russia. To entertain the queues they played them re runs on video of black and white episodes of The Lone Ranger.

Following the music, I stumbled into a whole roomful of stunned looking people transfixed by the William Tell Overture and chaps on horses. All they wanted to do was to get onto an AAT course.

Perhaps they regarded this as part of the process, like some sort of endurance test. I once tried enrolling on an FE course myself. It was surreal! But that’s another story.
I learnt something quite early on. The caretakers know everything. They are often first in in the morning and last out at night. They observe and they gossip and they judge, but no one ever asks them what they see or know.

If you want to know what goes on in a college you ask the caretakers. Or the receptionists. It’s call tacit knowledge (http://www.knowledgeboard.com/download/3512/Tacit-vs-Explicit.pdf) , and it’s underestimated.

For all their E&D policies and “open door management” guff most FE colleges are more hierarchical than the Catholic Church.

If it’s any consolation, universities are worse.
I once did a job for a college in, um, the South East. The Principal was troubled, as so many are when you get them behind closed doors, and spent a long time fretting about the state of the place.

Making the front page of the Daily Mirror the previous day hadn’t helped his equilibrium either, especially that picture of him with Fergie. On skis. He gave me a free rein to go anywhere and talk to anyone.
I quickly sought out the head caretaker and bought him a cup of tea. He was, of course, dead suspicious. It was either my charm or the jam doughnut which did the trick. He then told me exactly what the Principal had told me and quite a lot more besides (great stuff if you like gossip) and concluded by saying, “Of course, the Principal knows none of this.”

Well not the sexier stuff anyway, some of which was eye opening and, frankly, quite tricky when you have a formal meeting with the culprits the next day and have to keep a straight face about what you know about the car park, the Christmas party and the stationery cupboard.

This tacit knowledge is a powerful thing. So much of the money spent on surveys and research exercises and complaints procedures and whatnot could be saved if people just got the receptionists and caretakers in for a monthly chat to find out what was really going on and what the students were happy or griping about.

Try it. You could learn a lot about your own college.