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Colleges are finding out if caseloading is a panacea for industrial unrest. Harvey McGavin reports It was hailed in the 1980s as a miracle cure for Britain's industrial ills and a remedy for the strike culture which dominated state and private companies alike.

The magic formula was "caseloading", a contract where an employee's role is defined by the job to be done not the hours worked. It has to be negotiated, not imposed, and needs a clear understanding by management and staff of what is a "reasonable workload".

Caseloading is making a sluggish start in colleges because of confusion over what it means and a lack of suitable models. Nor has it proved to be a cure-all.

It is difficult to balance the relative values and time taken for teaching and management. And if the workload is not defined by hours, how is overtime assessed and compensated for?

Despite the teething troubles, however, many college managers still view caseloading as a way of introducing new contracts while recognising additional duties, giving staff more power and promoting more flexible learning.

The Colleges' Employers' Forum has welcomed caseloading as "an idea whose time has come". The lecturers' union NATFHE is also willing to explore caseloading schemes.

Similar methods of working are now commonplace in professions such as medicine, law and social work. But the CEF admits: "In further education a model of good practice that can be put before the sector is some way off."

Bob Kedney, CEF research director, says contracts disputes have prevented a more widespread introduction of caseloading. At present, there are only successful working examples in colleges where managers have produced customised caseloading systems.

"There are a lot of home-grown models," he says. "But there are almost as many definitions as people trying to make it work."

A report from the Further Education Development Agency due later this month, confirms this. It details the experiences of 10 colleges which have piloted some form of caseloading. The array of working titles alone illustrates the range of options. Lowestoft College call it "weighted work loading", Brunel College of Arts and Technology dubbed theirs "relative work loading", while at Northbrook College of Design and Technology it is "compensatory time".

At Blackpool and The Fylde College there's a "professional portfolio" and Bournemouth and Poole College talk about "notional contact".

One of the most successful experiments has been at Accrington and Rossendale College where college-wide caseloading begins next year. The college has piloted a scheme in its performing arts, hairdressing and beauty therapy departments. Department heads bid for cash. Each lecturer is then given a caseload. If necessary part-time lecturers are recruited to make up for staff shortages.

If a team exceeds its targets staff are given time off in lieu. If it falls short then the team must lower its sights.

Other colleges have enjoyed varying degrees of success. Brunel College in Bristol initially devised a scheme which awarded points according to factors including class size, complexity, safety and mode of delivery. But they found this approach both bureaucratic and formulaic.

It was abandoned. In its place they have begun to delegate budgets with each department receiving two-thirds of their Further Education Funding Council cash to spend as they see fit.

Deputy principal Dr Ed Sallis says this resource-based method is remarkably successful. "It's up to the teams to design their curriculum and this has given them considerable freedom over how they operate."

The scheme's success will be judged in terms of exam results, retention rates and so on, and there are already encouraging signs. Student enrolments are up and staff motivation has increased. "It's given staff an opportunity to do the things they want to do. It's an overused term but it's a positive way of empowering them."

The reason, he says, why more colleges are not following their lead is that college managers are reluctant to give up control. "You have to trust your staff as the people who know best. College managers no longer take control of the process and a lot of people find that difficult."

Lowestoft College introduced a system of weighted workloading last September. It sought to balance workloads by assigning weightings to three broad categories of work. Duties like classroom teaching merit a weighting of 1.5 hours, laboratory and workshop sessions 1.2, and staff development or student support activities were worth 1.

The college's Pauline Wilcock says it is too early to say whether weighted workloading is the way forward and the formula may yet be revised. Early signs suggest it has succeeded in its aim of avoiding unreasonably high workloads.

At Northbrook College, lecturers are allocated "compensatory time" according to their position. For example, programme leaders qualify for seven hours a week deducted from 25 hours teaching, course leaders for two hours. Following the introduction of degree courses at the college, this was seen as a way of easing the workload on higher education lecturers, who were compensated with five hours a week.

But their experience contradicted the assumption that caseloading could be flexibility's friend - most lecturers reported that increased administration made them much less flexible in their working habits. And while in theory caseloading was perceived as fair, in practice it proved mechanistic and arbitrary. "Those who had expected little from caseloading were not disappointed," the report concluded.

Northbrook College's Yvonne Griffiths recognises the need for change. "The idea is a very good one. There is a huge disparity in workload among staff. In the current chilly financial climate that can't be allowed to go on."

Mr Kedney predicts caseloading will be a central feature of college organisation. "It's going to be a growing part of the FE scene." But many colleges said that contracts disputes had hampered caseloading's progress, and that its association with the introduction of new contracts means it has been viewed with suspicion by supporters of the Silver Book contracts from the days of local education authority control.

Sue Berryman, NATFHE's negotiating secretary, says caseloading has not yet made a significant impact on lecturers' working lives. "Caseloading has not got up and running to any great extent. We are not against change and we are not opposed to it in principle but it hasn't been thought through adequately. "

She does not believe caseloading will take the key number 756 - the total of teaching hours in a year under old conditions of service - out of the equation. "It looks very plausible but employers have had all sorts of real difficulties in new ways of determining workloads. After all, teaching is still mainly what lecturers do."

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