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Pitching for part-timers

For a sector which reckons to be good with people - shaping and polishing them is our core business - colleges have been rotten to part-time teachers. We have employed them spasmodically, dismissed them casually, and paid them indifferently.

There were always plenty of people ready to work for us, and the route into a full-time teaching post has often led through a spell of what amounted to part-time probation. The system has been good for colleges, giving us at minimum cost the flexibility to match staff to the notoriously fickle demand for courses, and not all bad for the teachers, many of whom liked the work and were satisfied with the pay. But there was no security on either side, and few rights for the individuals.

All that has changed, and recent European directives have given part-timers many of the rights of permanent staff. The measure was not aimed at colleges, but the effect on us is devastating.

In my own college, for example, part-time teaching staff represent not only the largest single group of employees, but outnumber all the others put together. Smiles broke out on the 500 faces of those acquiring rights to redundancy payments, paid maternity and sickness leave. But rights mean money. Colleges were not funded to pick up these costs. Local education authority treasurers, who escaped this by the margin of the 24 months which have elapsed since colleges were incorporated, must be mopping their brows and stifling their smirks.

The problems for colleges are of three kinds and many colleges will be confronted by them all. There are first those part-timers who have already acquired all these rights because they have clocked up at least two years' continuous service. Then there is the second group whose employment history is obscure, mainly because the LEA kept no records, and whose rights are therefore incalculable.

Nor should we overlook those who have been employed as part-timers in more than one college. This is very common where colleges are located close to each other. To whom do they belong? The third category is of those who have not yet reached the point where their length of service qualifies them for benefits, but are rapidly approaching it. The college is caught between a financial rock and a moral hard place. The safest thing to do with the third group is to terminate their contract as soon as possible, and not re-engage them for a longish period. Not a good way to treat some valuable colleagues, and what about the classes they would otherwise teach, in September, say? The colleges will need to put teachers in front of them, not to re-appoint the current staff could lead to claims for unfair dismissal, while to re-employ them would mean they would inevitably acquire the full set of rights, with the full set of financial implications.

As for the first two groups, some sort of fractional permanent appointment might be suitable - the pattern is quite common both for teachers in schools and for support staff in colleges - but not for all. Although some will have worked for the requisite length of time, they may have slipped through holes in the selection process, others would find that in September their work had been taken on by full-time staff working extended hours under the terms of their new, flexible contracts. Either way, we wouldn't want to take them on permanently.

As an experienced governor commented recently: "It's a mess, and not one of our making." The mess cannot be left unattended. Enter the Colleges' Employers' Forum. After several months' unnerving silence on the topic, they have now come up with an idea. The scheme has been offered to member colleges at a series of road shows. The CEF has selected an agency whose credentials they are pushing like mad. In the same Manchester hotel in which I once endured a presentation on timeshare in Florida, we had a high pressure pitch which included, like the timeshare experience, an attempt to get us to sign up before we left the room.

But unlike its predecessor, it didn't offer any freebies, unless you count the ballpoint, which promptly broke. The urgency of making a quick commitment was, we were told, illustrated by the assertion that if not enough colleges came in immediately, the agency would withdraw its offer for the whole sector. A few days later, an impassioned letter from the chief executive made the same point.

The scheme is simple in essence. Take a deep breath, get out your cheque book, sack all those part-timers whom you don't want to engage on fractional contracts, and give their names to the agency, which will then suggest to them that they be registered as self-employed. The agency will then keep a database of these individuals, their skills, their qualifications, their preferred colleges and their availability. When we need somebody we send a shopping list to the agency who will send us their list of eligible and appropriate people. We don't employ them, so we don't get caught for any costs other than the strict rate for the lecturing itself. Colleges will decide how much any such casual lecturer is worth.

Those who teach things for which there are plenty of alternative lecturers could find themselves bidding their price down. The scheme may solve some technical difficulties of employment law, but does nothing for any sense of bonding between college and lecturer, and neither would owe any loyalty to the other. Who gains from all this? Not the individual lecturer, not the service. Presumably the agency does, although their pitch was that it was a strictly non-profit organisation. Not, surely, the CEF which has been so powerfully promoting the agency. Its chief executive has confirmed that there is no link, financial or contractual. So that's that: a piece of well-intentioned legislation, welcome in principle, counter-productive in practice. Sounds familiar.

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