Is lecturers' lot a happy one?

30th June 2006 at 01:00
As the pay gap with teachers widens Michael Austin asks whether conditions of service have got worse too

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the teaching staff of a college can be divided into three distinct groups. The 20 per cent who think the management is wonderful, free of errors and to be followed enthusiastically. Another 20 per cent who are implacably opposed to everything management does and resist all change. And 60 per cent who can be persuaded either way. It is the aim of management to ensure the 60 per cent combine with the first 20 per cent.

It helps if staff think they are being properly rewarded. The pay gap which has now opened up between lecturers and schoolteachers still hurts. For some, it's a dull ache which is always nagging away, for others it's more of an open wound, angry and festering. For many lecturers, less pay means less respect from others as well as damaging their own self-esteem. FE lecturers have liked to think of themselves as akin to those who work in universities, not least because there are a lot of university-level courses in colleges. The very term lecturer, with its implication of words of great wisdom delivered to hushed audiences in great halls, always sounded grander than teacher, a person who wiped noses in an atmosphere of resentment and incipient anarchy. It was never remotely like that, of course, but our education system thrives on myths, and this was one of the most cherished.

The requirement to crank up the pass rate by ensuring that only students capable of succeeding are admitted has led colleges to insist on entry tests to some of their courses. This particularly affects adult returners: one in the eye for those who want to fling the gates wide open to all. And who can say whether these tests, designed to find out what would-be students know, are any use at predicting what they will achieve a year or two later? Staff whose work is mainly with this kind of student resent what they see as lack of trust in their professionalism. When does pressure to meet targets become hounding? Does hounding morph into bullying?

Even the biddable 60 per cent find the industrial strength quality control intimidating. The grip of internal and external verifiers, moderators and assessors risks squeezing all flair and imagination into moulds of conformity. Lecturers lump all these processes together as bureaucracy: a word pronounced furtively and with a clove of garlic in the hand.

Lecturers have done their bit to get the figures for student retention and achievement up to their current high levels (where for the sector as a whole they are better than those reported by universities), but they don't necessarily feel good about it. Selecting students for courses goes against the grain for the lecturers who think what makes FE different is its habit of giving people a second chance, of letting them have a go at something at which they might fail, but hey, they lived their dream. Old-fashioned, sentimental, liberal education-inspired claptrap in an age when the destination outranks the journey, say others.

The Government's priorities, supported by hypothecated, non-transferable funding, for 16 to 19-year-olds and for those who need to reach level 2 (GCSE equivalent) have, it seems, created hierarchies of esteem within colleges. The courses designed for students in those key categories are deemed to be the most important, and therefore the resources, including staff who teach on them, are given priority (or so it seems to those outside the magic matrix). Fine for those who are bathed in sunshine; not so hot for those overshadowed as a result.

If the lecturer's lot is not always a happy one, there are things that even the curmudgeonly 20 per cent would have to accept as being better than they were. Colleges are much more attractive places to work in. Money has been spent on upgrading classrooms, workshops, corridors, canteens and car parks, equipment is better and access to technology vastly easier.

There has been a very welcome interest in what actually happens in the classroom or workshop. Observation of lessons is now standard, and instead of lecturers practising their mysterious alchemy behind closed doors, the teachinglearning nexus is under the spotlight. Nobody likes to think that what they do is of no interest, so the chance for lecturers to strut their stuff in a public performance of their art is good for morale.

So, the 60 per cent mostly keep their heads down, ignoring distractions and working for those electrifying moments when an individual student, or even a whole class, catches on, and something has been learned, understood and absorbed. These have always been the times that fuel the teacher's life, since Neanderthals grunted instructions round the fire, Socrates talked the talk as he walked the walk, or their successors grumbled in the modern staffroom.

Michael Austin is a former principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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