Close to the edge

7th April 2000 at 01:00
Pity the head of department: drowning in the information deluge, weighed down by repetitive bureaucray, feeling powerless but under enormous pressure. Francis Beckett looks at two reports highlighting their plight

They are are neither fish nor fowl. They have all the bureaucratic pressures of top management yet, typically, they carry heavy teaching loads. Middle managers - heads of department and above - don't make the rules, but they are unable simply to teach. Many of them feel they are at the sharp end.

They have been placed "under an inordinate amount of pressure with ever increasing responsibilities which were inexorably broadening as institutions were restructured", according to a report from the lecturers' union Natfhe and the London Institute of Education. Some middle managers feel "that education purposes are becoming secondary to an increasing emphasis on audit data". Others worry that funding encourages colleges to chase money rather than concentrating on educational goals.

"We're all sick to death of hearing about FEFC funding," one curriculum manager told researchers. But they are forced to think about it, and to recognise that "it's the units that pay for our work".

The report, on the impact of funding from the Further Education Funding Council, looks at the effect of getting rid of jobs on those left behind. Full-time students are down to an average of 15 to 18 taught hours each week and, in one college, as few as 12. This creates a managerial problem:

"The quality and quantity of teaching hours is partly maintained by the goodwill of staff. Managers reporting this were well aware of the danger of abusing goodwill, and the past damage which had been done to it."

That may be one reason why agency staff, sold as a convenient management tool to managers, in reality make matters worse. According to many of the managers interviewed, such staff frequently did not fulfil the requisite job specifications.

Getting budgetary responsibility and a degree of financial autonomy is a mixed blessing, the researchers were told. Some managers liked it; others felt it gave them "ownership without power".

No wonder that high sickness and absenteeism were reported in some colleges. Two thirds mentioned stress on staff as an issue caused by heavy auditing. Several emphasised te burden on middle managers: "the information deluge".

The Further Education Development Agency has produced a paper on reducing bureaucratic burdens on lecturers, which identifies many of the same problems as the Natfhe survey, adding a few telling statistics. Meetings take up to two and half hours a week for teaching staff, and substantially more for managers. Administrative tasks are usually urgent, over half of them requiring action the same day. And the main effect of increasing bureaucracy seems to be on preparation time available for teaching sessions.

The agency's emphasis is different from Natfhe's in one important respect: the main part of the administrative overload, says FEDA, does not come from external demands such as those of the FEFC. "Most of the bureaucratic burdens on teachers relate to students and what might be termed the core processes of planning, facilitating, promoting, supporting and assessing student learning." It identifies the most time-consuming tasks: those linked with individual student records: "I the most irritating administrative tasks are those where identical or similar information was required more than once in different formats".

External bodies such as the FEFC do impose an unnecessary administrative burden. The agency wants them to simplify their processes. They should create a unified quality framework instead of the patchwork we have now and, similarly, put all funding into a single framework. They should take a lead on developing ICT links with colleges, and "develop a unique identifier for each individual student to be used across educational phases".

Within colleges, FEDA proposes several strategies to reduce the bureaucracy. Redesigning and re-engineering the curriculum and the administrative systems, and managing the process of change effectively, can help. It also identifies strategies which the Natfhe report discovered are already in use in some colleges: employing more administrative staff, training middle managers, and putting their faith and money into new technology.

Curriculum changes are adding to the burdens, says Judith Norrington, curriculum director at the Association of Colleges. With two examination periods - in January and July - more modular courses and more A-levels, departments have to change working methods.

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