Secret Lecturer: The trouble with restructuring

Secret Teacher

It’s the FE lobby of Parliament this week (October 17) – a chance to sound off about the great role further education colleges play in training our future workforce.

It’s also an opportunity to highlight the crazy moves colleges are often forced to make when starved of funding. It’s down to FE staff to tell MPs exactly what we all think of policies that force colleges to constantly restructure themselves, cut down departments, let people go, and then frequently find they have overdone it and need to re-appoint. 

Many of us will recognise the familiar reassurances given following a restructuring process – ‘yes, going through it has been painful but from now it will make life a lot better’. Then a year later, we’re back in the same place facing a second wave of cuts that all too often result in more redundancies for learning support staff, which in turn can cause huge problems for students and staff remaining.

 

Restructuring is almost an end-of-term event

I know colleges that have gone through three restructures in four years to make ends meet. It’s almost an annual end-of-term event and it’s the lesser-paid employees who almost always seem to be first to lose their jobs. And yet summer cuts are usually based on estimated, not actual, student needs and numbers for the following winter term. It’s all too easy for colleges to come unstuck after realising that their new September student intake has a particularly large cohort with special needs. 

So how can colleges break this vicious circle? Some seem to view learning support as a bit of a luxury and yet many of my fellow lecturers say the opposite is true – if you lack appropriate support in class, the learning you aim to deliver very often just doesn’t happen.

 

Actual numbers are better than guestimates

One thing to consider is the timing of restructures. I can see the financial reasons why the summer term is favoured for laying off staff not needed in September because they then don’t have to be paid over the summer break. But learning support staff only tend to be paid pro rata for the whole year for weeks worked during term-time so they get paid less than normal salary anyway. Why not decide on staffing when you know what the actual numbers are rather than guesstimate the previous term?

A fellow lecturer told me how a college he’d once worked at restructured in June and July. It was about to move campuses and yet the estates management team was still reduced in the mistaken belief they could cope. Then just weeks into the first term of the move, they were advertising to reappoint. Reactive rather than proactive.

 

More funding means less restructuring

Sadly, any form of restructuring can be a minefield. At one institution it was suggested that higher paid staff might consider taking a pay cut to reduce redundancies, though that’s as far as it went. I don’t know any colleges that have found an ideal way to manage restructuring.

Let’s get real here. Restructuring is asking an awful lot. What we really need is a sea change in funding policy. A report from commissioned by the Sixth Form Colleges Association says students in sixth form colleges are now getting on average £760 less per head than pupils in school sixth forms and about £5,000 less than HE students. Yet many FE students need the same sort of equipment to do their courses as might be needed in HE. 

Then there is the ongoing lack of respect this government and its predecessors have shown the sector. That too has to change. Will efforts this week – the inaugural Colleges Week – make a difference, I wonder? 

 

Goodwill and effort can only go so far

Meanwhile, back at the coalface, teaching staff are putting in more, more and yet more effort to make college work for their students. For us, the most difficult thing is supporting the needs of learners. We can absorb so many cuts and changes but there is always a cost. 

A special needs colleague said she might have to change the activity she’d run in class; increasing lack of learning support staff meant decreasing scope for practical work and creativity. She found her students responded better as learners to doing practical things and so she’d always tried to minimise the amount of writing and ‘chalk and talk’. Yet when it’s only you doing things practically, it can become much more difficult without staff support. The mantra ‘whatever you do in class is half the time you spend preparing for it’ says it all.

 

A place for people seeking something different

 

Further education has always been that place for people who want something different to a school education; many of my college’s courses offer that and provide equally good ways to enter work or HE. But unless funding changes – and quickly – the whole system risks collapsing. I can’t see us all having another eight years of the current policy – people won’t put up with it. 

We also need to resist the pressure to merely fill the role of turning our learners into economic contributors. FE has an important function in its local community to provide opportunities for people who normally would not get them; it helps many of those same people stay off drugs, be less of a drain on the NHS, turn their lives around through taking up a hobby . . . and yet FE does far more than that. 

We are an alternative to staying on at school, we give people a second chance, and we must no longer be looked down on by the rest of the education sector. We have to make the lobby work for us now.

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