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Junior staff miss open opportunity

Few colleges are well-placed to bid for cash for distance learning innovations. Ian Nash and Anne Nicholls report on a TES NEC survey.

Colleges are failing to exploit new teaching styles which would attract more students because the work is left to junior staff without proper guidance or support.

The first national survey of open and distance learning, carried out by the National Extension College and The TES, shows a high level of ignorance about the potential of new schemes among policy and decision-makers in colleges.

The questionnaire, to which 143 colleges in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland replied, was directed at senior managers of open learning or vice principals.

But replies came from individuals with 70 different job titles, from "key skills co-ordinator" and "school manager" to "study centre manager" and "enterprise manager".

Many of the staff admitted that they were not taken seriously by senior management. Their jobs were often created in a drive to "de-layer" management. Responsibility was devolved to junior staff who did not influence policy.

The survey has prompted ministerial advisers and senior policy-makers to call for a more strategic approach to open and distance learning courses.

These are the methods by which colleges can provide more Open University-style courses, using the computer, phone, TV and the post, to people in the home and workplace who are unable to reach college in normal hours.

One in three colleges has yet to get involved in the new programmes. The most significant barriers (see table opposite) reflect weaknesses at the most senior levels. This is further underlined by the lack of cash. Many colleges gave no indication of of cash invested. Only a few had major plans (see table below).

This lack of progress in FE has alarmed the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education and senior advisers to ministers who want colleges to play a key role in the Department for Education and Employment's revolution in lifelong learning.

Josh Hillman, research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research, and architect of the Government's University for Industry, said: "Your research shows massive institutional and financial barriers to wider use of open and distance learning. It shows clearly the need for the University for Industry. "

His comments will alarm senior college managers who are committed to the new styles of learning since it suggest that they may be side-stepped in the new deal.

However, the handful who have made significant gains are likely to find themselves in the driving seat of the Government's lifelong learning revolution, leaving the rest behind.

"We need to exploit national economies of scale and better training and development of teachers in the new methods," he added, suggesting that it was clear evidence of the failure of the Tories four-year free-market experiment in FE.

Typical comments from staff replying to the survey were: "No appropriate market has been identified," "We have had no one to co-ordinate development until now" and "There is a general lack of time and money."

The 10-question survey was aimed at finding out the levels of commitment in staff and cash, future investment and expansion plans, how far colleges saw the open and distance learning schemes as being relevant to their work and the key reasons why people opted for such courses and programmes.

Expansion plans over the next five years are woefully small in most colleges. Despite the majority of colleges having fewer than 100 students on such schemes (see chart) most who responded to the question on growth plans saw little more than a doubling in student numbers by the year 2002.

Most significant barriers TO OPEN-LEARNING

(descending order of priority): * Lack of cash and resources * Difficulty setting up support systems * Perceived lack of demand by students * Lack of trained tutors and managers * Subjects unsuitable for open learning * Poor accommodation * Lack of management interest * Out-of-date materials

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