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Colleges try to be smart investors

Despite the hype only 34 colleges have become Investors in People so far reports Anat Arkin.

A training revolution was promised when a new scheme for staff development was introduced to colleges from industry three years ago. Despite scepticism over its slow take-up in the private sector, Investors in People was launched with a ministerial fanfare in the public sector.

And of all the institutions expected to benefit most, colleges - newly-incorporated and commercially-minded - were seen as a prime target.

Two-thirds of colleges are currently working towards the IIP award - but only 34 have so far achieved this quality standard, according to a Further Education Funding Council analysis of college strategic plans.

One reason cited by critics for this discrepancy is that the standard, which provides employers with a framework for developing their staff, was not designed for further education colleges.

"It's a lot harder than it looks for colleges to achieve the standard, mainly because they employ large numbers of part-timers who historically have not been included in staff development activities," said Bob Nunn, quality systems manager at Mid-Warwickshire College, who also works part-time for Birmingham Training and Enterprise Council as an IIP adviser.

"Another sticking point is that although the standard says the commitment to developing staff has to come from the top, often the person with the job of preparing a college for IIP assessment has the responsibility but not the power to change things. It does need a very supportive management."

With the dispute over new employment contracts rumbling on and colleges making compulsory redundancies, staff scepticism about their employers' willingness to "invest" in them is also leading some colleges to put IIP on the back burner. Others, however, say they are using the standard to show they value their remaining staff.

One such employer is Debbie Thornton, associate principal at York College of Further and Higher Education which has made a number of redundancies over the past year and is currently working towards IIP accreditation.

She said: "IIP has become more important to us because we can't deny that much of the sector is in the business of getting more from staff and placing greater challenges on them. In that sense developing and supporting those staff we can still afford to keep is very important."

But the ambiguous title of the award does pose problems for colleges. "If it was called Investing in Training it would be less open to cynicism and misunderstanding," said Don Smith, staff development officer at Salisbury College, which achieved IIP recognition last April. "I spent a lot of my time deconstructing the standard and explaining that it is not about pay and conditions of service but about having training and personnel policies in place."

For his college, the award meant honing processes already in place. The college ensured that all new staff went through an induction programme.

Other colleges said going for the IIP had made them evaluate their training activities whereas in the past they did not know how staff development was contributing to organisational goals.

Investors in People UK, the agency which sets the standards, cited improved productivity and reduced costs among the main benefits of going through the IIP process.

But FE colleges have other reasons for getting IIP status, according to a survey by the London and South East Regional Advisory Council for Further Education (LASER). Only 2 per cent of colleges said cost-cutting was "very important", compared to 58 per cent who had introduced a framework for improved quality, mainly to change their culture.

But despite taking on board the IIP framework few colleges have actually increased the share of their budgets devoted to staff development.

In order to get the award, many have had to redirect resources towards appraising and developing their part-time teaching and support staff.

Colleges have also had to find ways of communicating more effectively with these groups - as Mid-Warwickshire College discovered when it turned out that not all part-time lecturers had pigeon-holes. The only way to be sure of letting them know about the IIP initiative was by writing to them at home.

Criticisms of IIP have been muted, although the lecturers' union NATFHE has received complaints from some of its members about colleges introducing the initiative with little consultation.

"If done properly - and it's a big if Investors in People can be a very valuable way of increasing staff development and getting a whole college policy on staff development," said NAFTHE assistant secretary Dan Taubman.

"It's certainly a quality standard that is more appropriate to the public sector and particularly to education than the British management training standard BS5750 or most of the other total quality management initiatives which essentially were designed for manufacturing and do not always fit education and training."

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