Piecework with a silver lining

2nd December 1994 at 00:00
Dr Bob Kedney reviews past and present debates over lecturers' contracts, and assesses the feasibility of contracts based on work done rather than hours worked.

To the uninitiated, the relationship between professionalism, workloads and contract-term may appear to have acquired very odd twists and turns over the years.

The current debate on lecturers' contracts moved a member of a college corporation to recall arguments from 20 years ago which had led to the "Silver Book", in which current LEA-style conditions of service were spelled out.

There are real worries about balance and fairness. It is into this arena that the notion of the caseload - a contract based on work done, not on hours - is now being pitched.

For some, caseloading appears to offer freedom from past constraints, allowing staff simply to get on with teaching. For others it is a rounded recognition of all lecturers' diverse activities. It is said to offer a sensitive way of allocating workloads, and is claimed to be almost infinitely flexible, as it removes the detailed prescription that is said to bedevil the current job.

There is no doubt that it is exciting staff participating in pilot projects across the land. It has even been hinted at as a possible way out of the impasse that remains in the contract debate. The catalogue of virtues seems to grow with each meeting and college visit.

The early stages of innovation tend to be creatively untidy and have little concern for mundane detail. Before attempting to use such evidence as is available to describe what caseloading may be and how much there is of it about, it may be wise to consider where the system has come from. Until this year, staff in colleges have had their activities guided or regulated, depending on your experience and viewpoint, by detailed commentaries given in books with covers of a different hue. Caseloading seems to concern academic staff who teach or support structured learning in other ways.

They, in the main, have fallen into the purview of the Silver Book, which distinguishes between a teaching load based on class contact hours and other duties. Flexibility lay in notions of class-contact equivalence, individual professional commitment and blends of partnership and management. Over time, boundaries have hardened and there has been much counting of angels on the heads of pins. No one is being heard to argue, at least publicly, for going back to the operational practices described by the Audit Commission when it first visited FE a decade or so ago.

The Colleges' Employers' Forum (CEF) survey of the shape and terms of the new flexible contract included an enquiry about new approaches to caseloading. Aware of the difficulty that there may be a lot of it about but colleagues do not necessarily always recognise it as caseloading, the question was asked twice in slightly different ways.

The responses from around three quarters of FE colleges, taken together with feedback from conferences and interviews, suggests that around one in 10 colleges is beginning to develop a caseloading approach. Another 18 colleges indicate that they are exploring ideas and around another tenth say they are developing workload techniques that are not class-contact based but are not caseloading as they know it.

Talking to college managers over the last few weeks, the distinctions appear to owe more to differences in perception than practice. In a conference at the Staff College last month, a principal recalled the halcyon days when as head of department he and his 20 colleagues looked at the enrolments and the curriculum and decided how best to organise their activities.

As a group which met socially and even went on holiday together, they were clearly close. Working in higher education, they also presumably taught mainly full-time students over two or three years and clearly enjoyed stability as well as mutual trust. A fellow principal, who for the first time also recognised that he had caseloading, responded by saying he would have changed his reply from the "other workloading" category in the CEF survey.

If recent visits and presentations to the CEF's caseloading review group found similar examples, it also found quite different responses. It is therefore perhaps more accurate to claim that around 60 to 70 colleges have pilot exercises in hand and others are beginning to explore ideas.

Flexibility, like responsiveness, motherhood and apple pie, is universally seen as good and necessary. Caseloading and similar approaches, it is argued, are ways - if not the way - forward. A literature search found little guidance from experience other than a few examples from the days of trying to fit caseloading for open learning into the tregulatory framework of counting hours and Burnham points which prevailed at the time.

So far, reference to other professions has not been much more successful.

One college chief executive who said he did see caseloading as the route forward indicated he had been a social worker. He indicated that allocating caseloads there had, of necessity, to be highly individualistic.

It is simply not possible, I was told, to count and weight the individual complex needs of adoptions, placing children in care or of supporting families in stress in a mechanistic way. Further, the caseload review had to be held with a regularity beyond the ken of the FE manager struggling to fit annual or termly appraisal interviews into an ever-growing portfolio of duties.

FE students do not have simple relationships with individual lecturers. Instead they enjoy the diversity of contributions from a complex range of skills. One way forward may be through the team approach touched on above.

Allocating time to a group of staff and allowing them to decide how best to fit their contribution and enthusiasms to requirements sounds attractive. The effect of taking away distinctions between one type of professional activity and another, can be motivating, as staff argued when asked how they recorded their time for the demands of the college computer management information systems (CMIS).

"I wish all of my professional commitment to be recognised; before I felt only those hours that were timetabled counted," a lecturer argued.

The removal of one set of boundaries in the name of flexibility does not, however, address all the parameters in which lecturers operate. There are a wide range of other interested parties, not the least of which will be other staff in the same college and their union representatives. As one of the objectives of some colleges is also to address the inequities of history, tensions can be expected.

No one seems to be suggesting that one form of detailed prescription should replace another in allocating academic staff time. But as the more rounded nature of the lecturer's role and the sheer volume of professional tasks in a college are mapped, the detail of a formula can grow.

No bad thing, some might argue, for it will lead to recognition and a better understanding, particularly if weightings are to be applied. If over-formulation risks the introduction of new "Spanish practices", deregulation may lead to appeals and arbitration.

Caseloading clearly has a place in the professions. But it has to fit in with the culture and style of each profession and while these are not set in concrete they are very powerful. There is enough interest to suggest that change is in the air with regard to the ways in which the contribution of the lecturer is to be accounted for. The contract changes have brought in a climate in which initiative can flourish.

There is as yet little evidence beyond the enthusiasm of the innovators, and perhaps that is all to the good. The sorts of questions asked by executives, line managers, auditors, researchers and trade union officers could stunt the young shoots of change before they see the light of day.

Caseloading and other non-contract-hour systems offer exciting prospects. There may be no better time for change than now.

* Dr Bob Kedney is director ofresearch at the CEF

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