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Colleges feel impact of growing class sizes

A CLA survey finds teaching standards slipping as stress and a heavier workload take their toll on lecturers. Neil Munro reports.

The leading lecturers' union claims to have uncovered evidence that the incorporation of further education colleges has led to growing class sizes, increasing stress and threats to standards.

Responses to an eight-point questionnaire returned by 591 lecturers at 10 colleges paint a picture of unrelieved gloom in which the majority of staff are forced to admit that the quality of their teaching has deteriorated.

Bruce Heil, education convener of the Educational Institute of Scotland's College Lecturers' Association, said: "This provides us with the clearest evidence to date of the pressures and stress under which lecturers are working. The only surprising thing is how emphatic the views of our members are. " The findings are to be presented to the Scottish Office.

Mr Heil attributes the problems to the incorporation of colleges and to the effects of year-on-year "efficiency savings". There has been an increasing use of part-time staff to save money, and CLA members claim instructors are replacing lecturers in some instances.

David Snaith, the principal of Stow College in Glasgow whose staff took part in the survey, agreed that class sizes and stress levels had increased because of the changes. But he said many colleges had run with very small classes in the past and larger groups were "not before time".

The CLA reports lecturers' allegations that the financial pressure to put as many students through the colleges as possible is compromising standards. "Education is dying and being replaced by Mickey Mouse training," it says. "There are pressures to pass all students and keep students who are not capable of the level of work, which reduces the quality of teaching and learning.

"To fail a student - the intimidation is that the employer won't send anyone else, the college will lose a large amount of money, and therefore your job is at stake."

The Scottish Office method of funding the colleges, through "student units of measurement", is singled out as having a key adverse effect. CLA members call for funding to be reviewed to end the link between student pass rates and funding. "Emphasis on student numbers, retention and continuous assessment conflicts with maintaining standards and proper assessment," it says. "Lecturers are becoming completely disillusioned and may leave the profession. "

But Dr Snaith, the second-longest serving FE principal in Scotland, pointed out that there was no direct link between pass rates and funding. Colleges are, however, penalised if students drop out mid way through the year.

Dr Snaith said: "One way of keeping up your retention rates is to pass people, which is anathema to me and would seriously concern Scotvec as the validating body. But we are not yet paid on output results; the retention rate is what matters. The Scottish Office might, of course, question our recruitment policy if large numbers of students were failing, so there's a kind of moral pressure.

"Not only could we not condone standards being lowered, but we could not afford to do so. If we were passing students inappropriately, and then they presented themselves for HNC or HND programmes and fell flat on their faces, we'd soon be found out. But the object of the exercise is to have as many students being successful as possible and, to that end, we do encourage, advise and support students - they wouldn't expect anything less."

Terry Davies, principal at James Watt College in Greenock, where the CLA also canvassed the views of its members, said the fact that it had the lowest unit costs of all 43 incorporated colleges had not affected its performance, as was borne out in an HMI report on the college in February.

Tom Burness, principal of Glenrothes College which was also involved, agreed that the pressures were real enough but said they had not, in his experience, affected professional practice. The quality assurance mechanisms, through Scotvec, the Scottish Quality Management System and HMI would not allow professional malpractice to stand for very long without being exposed.

"It is also important to stress that lecturers are now much more accountable to each other than they used to be, with quality circles and team meetings or course review discussions," said Mr Burness. "The minutes of these meetings are also published because they are part of the audit trail, and are often put up on departmental notice boards."

Lecturers appear to believe nonetheless that the changes in FE have been for the worse, and blame the decline in the quality of their teaching on a narrowing of their subject area, lack of time for preparation, development work and contacts with industry, too much form-filling and a lower standard of work being covered with too much of it based on assessments.

The poor state of many buildings is also interfering with teaching, the survey states. There is a lengthy list of complaints about poor equipment and facilities including furniture falling to pieces, lack of shelving and storage space, poor staff facilities, poor toilets, lack of coat-hooks, carpets replaced by linoleum, poor canteens, and a shortage of stationery, photo-copying and typing facilities.

The colleges, it seems, just cannot win. One CLA member expresses annoyance that "building work is constantly being done to the college, causing disruption".

CLAsurvey showed that: * 268 had experienced a general increase in class size, 305 said they had not; * 551 were bearing a heavier workload, while 34 said there had been no increase; * 507 said they were under greater stress because of their workload, 71 reported that they were coping; * 411 had experienced stress for other reasons and 163 had not; * 182 agreed there was "adequate protection against students obtaining qualifications by fraudulent means, " but 373 claimed the mechanisms were inadequate; * 435 believed standards of recruitment had fallen, and 119 said they had not; * 458 felt the pressures to drop standards of assessment were increasing, 123 took the opposite view; * 311 admitted the quality of their own teaching had deteriorated, 259 said the quality had not slipped.

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