Colleges are collaborative, supportive places. Teaching staff share resources, ideas and strategies, along with coffee and chocolate biscuits. They operate with bonhomie and improve their skills through supportive CPD and peer engagement. But although they are the visible face of learning, they are not the only ones responsible for it.
Further education colleges also employ learning support assistants (LSAs) to help the one in eight students with declared needs and the many more who require a helping hand. More than 80 per cent of LSAs are female and, amid the diverse atmosphere of further education colleges, more than 90 per cent are white. Qualified teachers make up about 7 per cent of the LSA workforce, with more than 40 per cent possessing a level 4 qualification. But nearly 12 per cent have no qualifications at all and 20 per cent have only a level 2 qualification. Most are part-time and paid hourly, have no year-on-year job security and are subject to redeployment at any moment.
Many have years of specialist experience assisting students with dyslexia, dyspraxia, mental health issues, impaired hearing or sight, emotional problems and more. LSAs' responsibilities include note-taking, reading, enabling access to ICT, providing mobility and mealtime support, advocacy, helping learners on work experience and even covering classes for teaching staff.
And yet some colleges practise apartheid. LSAs in these institutions are not part of the teaching team, not part of the culture, not anywhere. Many don't even have a staffroom to use, just a cupboard to hang their coat in.
In my experience, a number of staff are very reluctant even to allow LSAs into their classes. They find another "voice" distracting, as though it usurps their authority. Other lecturers find that sending the more disruptive students to the library with an LSA enables them to teach the rest of the class more comfortably. And so it might, but is that what the LSA is for?
Funding cuts over the past few years have pared staff numbers to the bone in many FE colleges, and it puts incredible pressure on the remainder when a member of teaching staff is absent. In the sepia-photograph years someone would always be available to take on a class but this is now unlikely, so the responsibility often falls to an LSA who is told to "keep them quiet".
Frequently, lecturers do not know how to use LSAs effectively because CPD does not teach them how. Nor are LSAs given opportunities to develop their own skills. A few are paid for training but the majority are not and consequently do not attend, missing out on valuable learning and staff interaction. LSAs are often not released for training because of a lack of time or because of their low status. Their contracts usually end when the students leave and before the CPD begins. The career path for LSAs is a narrow one, and without a progression route they have little motivation to develop themselves. Yet they are often observed under similar conditions to teaching staff and graded accordingly.
Many lecturers admit they don't have the confidence to direct support staff effectively. Many are confused about what "support" actually is - they simply stop interacting with a student when a support worker is present. This seems pretty unfair: LSAs are used to keep the "naughty ones" quiet, barely tolerated in some classes, excluded from training and development, poorly paid and have no career progression, and yet they are expected to stand in for lecturers at the drop of a hat.
Discussions between teaching staff and LSAs outside the classroom are still rare. LSAs often go into classes without knowing what will be taught, what objectives are to be fulfilled, what practical work will take place or even what the course is.
Is FE like Downton Abbey, with lecturers and teaching staff on a higher tier than LSAs, who must be kept in their place? I can't believe that is how anyone in the sector wishes it to be. We listen to students and request "stakeholder" views at every turn, yet a significant proportion of the staff are effectively treated as a stopgap.
Where is the equality in that? And what will be the impact if this keeps happening? Training all staff to reach the highest standards is surely a no-brainer. Despite the government's best efforts, most colleges still insist on employing qualified staff to teach students, so why not extend that investment to the learning support team?
It is easy to talk to LSAs, to listen to them, to take a skills audit and match their strengths to relevant areas. It is simple to define their training needs, to include them in team meetings for the areas they work in and to value their insights. I'm incredulous that so many colleges don't.
We present an image of collaborative harmony to the world, working in partnership with employers, parents, stakeholders and schools - pretty much anyone who comes our way, in fact. But we do not, it would seem, include a key part of our workforce, who find themselves marginalised and too fearful of losing their jobs to say so.
Building a qualified, experienced and truly collaborative workforce must be our first priority if we are to continue to enable all learners to achieve. And yes, that includes the LSAs.
Jayne Stigger is an FE manager in south-east England