FEfocus Editorial - Let that be an exemplar to the rest?

21st January 2011 at 00:00

The transformation of Harlow College (page 3) from pariah to pioneer is quite a journey. Given that there are signs that the Government would like to see some of its changes made in other colleges, it is worth taking a while to look at the lessons that can be learned.

Although its position is not merely vastly improved, but good by almost any college's standards, the consequences of the bitter industrial dispute should not be overlooked. When 80 teaching staff walk away from their jobs, it is not only a crisis for that college, it is a potential loss of teaching talent for the whole of FE. Who knows how many of those staff sought alternative careers?

And a loss of staff of that magnitude can only have caused huge disruption, putting cohorts of students at risk of not reaching their full potential (that Harlow was able to quickly improve its results is to its credit).

In part this was based on a misunderstanding. Principal Colin Hindmarch's account is pitched carefully between suggesting a too-militant union that had an undue influence over staff and conceding that the job of communicating upheavals in terms and conditions, especially for a new principal, is a delicate surgical procedure, not to be undertaken lightly.

So one lesson is for principals to realise that their staff may not think as highly of them as they do themselves, and to act with caution.

If staff contracts are to be changed to allow new, flexible ways of teaching, there has to be an explicit trade-off where they get something in return. Union members at the time could only see an extension of teaching time and an erosion of holiday. And a history of eroding terms and conditions and relative pay in FE meant they had a right to be wary.

Harlow's most interesting idea is junking "presenteeism", the idea of clocking on for your prescribed hours, in favour of getting the task done. While the former funding body was hostile, the Skills Funding Agency is taking a similar tack, in casting off the requirements for a specified number of hours of teaching.

And FE minister John Hayes, praising the college's work with apprentices, added that it is "an exemplar in so many ways".

Mr Hindmarch said auditors demanded to know how many hours his staff taught, while he said he did not know or care. They thought the only way to improve efficiency was to squeeze more teaching time out of lecturers for the same money. Harlow has shown that in some circumstances you may be able to get away with less teaching time and still produce better outcomes. That has to be worth investigating.

But he also points out that the college for a long time regarded itself as disadvantaged because of wealthier neighbouring areas, but that this was not really true and its students should have higher expectations. That is also a warning about what might happen to these slimmed down, self- directed teaching teams with students with a worse prior education and greater social problems. There are only so many 11-hour workdays a teacher can take to help a student who needs more support, for instance.

In the end, Harlow is not just a story about the scope for greater efficiency. It is also about the risks of making changes without being fully aware of the facts on the ground. One hopes that, as the Government watches the progress of its "exemplar", it keeps both of these aspects in mind.

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