'The people at the front line are being hammered'

Lesson observations are being used to bully staff, says UCU chief

Joseph Lee

Sally Hunt has a lot of battles to fight. She has to contend with her own union activists, as she tries to tackle what she describes as factionalism within the University and College Union (UCU) that harms its ability to represent ordinary members.

The general secretary also has a clash over pensions. And FE members are facing some of the biggest attacks on their pay and conditions for a generation. On top of that is the threat FE loans pose to education access and to jobs, heading down the same path the union has already trodden in HE.

Not content with fighting battles on at least four fronts, she is keen to add another: lesson observations, which she says are increasingly being used to bully staff by colleges under pressure from the new Ofsted regime. But as she talks to TES ahead of UCU's annual congress, which starts today, it is clear that what she wants is not so much another fight, but an alliance with employers against unfair judgements on FE teaching.

"It's starting to happen with a rather frightening regularity," she says of colleges being downgraded by inspectors. "As a result you get some really punitive changes in terms of how colleges are going to undertake lesson observation. We absolutely need to find some way with the employers collectively to agree a process whereby people are properly observed and properly assessed.

"At the moment, what I think is happening is that colleges are being penalised in their assessments, then they're kicking other people. And the people being kicked are our members, who aren't really doing any worse or any better than they were before."

She rejects claims by Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw that there is a problem with FE teaching or that colleges are "hiding" behind the complexity of FE. "Some of it, I think, is plain insulting to education staff; some of it, I think, is ill-informed in terms of the new regime coming in," she says. "What we have in many cases is people who are at the front line of bringing people who otherwise would have no education, no prospects, back into the system, and they're being hammered."

There are signs that Ofsted is beginning to acknowledge some of these points: after the consultation on its proposed changes, it said progression would be the key measure of teaching success, so even institutions with below-average attainment could still get good grades.

While the UCU believes that colleges and their staff have joint interests, so far the Association of Colleges has rebuffed its attempts to reach a joint agreement on lesson observation, which has been proposed in this year's pay and conditions negotiations. This is a "potentially escalating industrial issue", Ms Hunt says.

On other fronts, the UCU is making progress. In May, it was isolated as the sole education union striking over pensions, but now the NUT and the NASUWT have made a historic agreement to work together, including on pensions. Ms Hunt says she wants to work with the other unions on a renewed campaign. "In the teachers' pension scheme, we are a smaller part of a bigger jigsaw. Without the jigsaw, the schoolteacher unions, the headteacher unions, we have got an issue in terms of how we can press any further industrial action."

But it is winning the internal battle that she sees as crucial to fighting all the others. Having achieved re-election on a platform of reducing the influence of groups such as UCU Left on the national executive, she says that the moral pressure is on delegates to support their branches' decision.

"It's essential that congress gives us the green light. If they don't, it will have an impact on our support for members, I've no doubt about that. It's in their hands," she says. "Win or lose, I'm very proud of the place that I'm in, which is on the side of members. I don't mind if I get called all sorts of things, which I'm sure I will be. My job is to represent members' interests."

Set in motion

Under debate at the UCU's annual congress:

- Pensions: branch motions call for the union to join the Public and Commercial Services Union and Unite in a strike later this month and for the "widest possible united action".

- Lesson observations: an FE committee motion condemns "macho management" and backs a national campaign against draconian observations.

- UCU structure: a University of Southampton motion backs reducing the national executive committee to 40 in order to fund improved member services.

- Pay: three UCU branches propose a ballot on industrial action coordinated with the NASUWT and the NUT in the autumn.

- FE loans: an national executive committee motion condemns the introduction of loans, criticising in particular the "double blow" for access to higher education students, who pay twice.

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Joseph Lee

Joseph Lee is an award-winning freelance education journalist 

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