Not everyone thinks positively about FE for training, but the reality often dispels the image. Selling lessons to industry has become a huge growth area. Martin Whittaker reports.
At Oxford College of Further Education, all new members of staff are allocated a mentor to help them find their feet in the first months of their new job. Staff mentoring is also used in the classroom. If lecturers are struggling they could find themselves supported by some of the stronger teaching staff.
The system has been running for 18 months and was a factor in the college gaining an Investors In People award last November. But while new recruits welcome having a friendly face to turn to, for the mentors themselves it can sometimes mean extra unwelcome paperwork. New employees get an induction pack, with checklists designed to monitor them through thementoring process.
Rosie Hawkes, the college's human resources manager, admits the system is not going entirely to plan: "I just don't think people are using it to the extent that it ought to be used. "It's not because they don't agree with it. Staff say it's a good idea, but they're not sure how they can find the time to do it to the depth it requires. Most would say: 'I'm really happy to look after new members of staff, but if you give me this paperwork it becomes quite onerous.' We then get into workload issues.
"I think it's quite difficult in further education to operate a really well-structured mentoring monitoring system."
Mentoring is the big buzzword of the moment. Under the Connexions programme for the careers and youth service, the Government envisages that an army of mentors will go out and turn the heads of disaffected youth.
The practice has been used in industry for years. Now college managers and lecturers are being urged down the mentoring route.
The Association of Colleges is working on a project to help develop schemes in colleges, paid for by the Further Education Funding Council out of the Standards Fund. The association is due to report on the study by March.
The exact number of colleges using staff mentoring is unknown. Some have been influenced by links with industry.
John Kelly, director of human resources and marketing at Oxford College of Further Education, was a manager in manufacturing and aerospace industries before moving into FE four years ago.
He has ushered in the college's mentoring scheme, modelled on its use in the private sector. But do such staff development techniques translate easily into education?
"I wouldn't claim it's perfct," says John Kelly. "Like all these processes, some work extremely well, some people don't want them and don't use them effectively. But certainly the processes are there.
"Coming into an organisation, particularly in teaching and learning, is itself quite a learning experience. You can come in, quickly get put into a classroom and not really be able to build networks.
"I'd experienced some successes myself - I got to know people who felt very comfortable about the college, and understood the direction the college was taking. I established links quite quickly.
"But it's very much down to a choice of mentor. If the relationship doesn't bond early on, it doesn't work at all. It's not a perfect process, but it has had its benefits."
Mid-Kent College introduced staff mentoring at the start of the last academic year, bringing in lesson observation to improve teaching and learning. The college put together a team of observers from among those who had demonstrated good practice in the classroom, and used a private company from outside the college to train them.
Jon Pink, Mid-Kent's curriculum manager, says: "I think colleges have bashed staff too much and really not supported staff. It's always been very much a case of let's find out someone who's not performing and let's try to get them out.
"It's not a very supportive environment to try and help people improve their performance in the classroom. So we thought that mentoring was a way of trying to make staff feel more comfortable about admitting a problem, coming forward and dealing with it."
He believes mentoring in education must follow a different and much more supportive route to that taken in industry.
"Really, mentoring in industry tends to be very much a manager taking a high-flier and coaching them for promotion. Whereas the approach we're taking is let's find people who have got things that need improving and let's look at how we can help them improve."
Paul Mackney, general secretary of the lecturers' union NATFHE, says staff who take on the mentoring role should be recognised for it.
"It formalises what used to happen when I started 25 years ago where, if I need assistance, there's someone there. But the number of full-time staff has been cut so much that it's difficult for new staff to get the kind of support I benefited from. We need to re-professionalise the college lecturing force. The number of lecturers with teaching qualifications has gone down. People who take on mentoring responsibilities should be rewarded for doing so."