Power transferis a step too far

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
On 31 October, I failed to take the step which would have prolonged my employment at Newcastle college, where I have taught sociology since 1979.

I failed to sign a new contract which had been imposed on lecturing staff, under threat of dismissal. In this way, my career of more than 33 years as a full-time lecturer in FE has effectively come to an end.

This marks the latest stage in a prolonged and bitter industrial dispute at Newcastle college over the implementation of the second stage of the two-year deal agreed nationally by the Association of Colleges and the Joint Trade Unions in 2003. After approximately six months of negotiations, talks broke down at the end of 2004 followed by seven days of strike action by members of Natfhe and the "greylisting" of the college at Natfhe's annual conference. Three days of talks at ACAS also failed to produce a resolution.

At stake was the linking of the partial implementation of the national deal to changes in the contract removing certain protections and entitlements, such as maximum weekly teaching load and a right to a 20-day summer holiday. Other erosions included a lengthening of the working week, more power to managers to deny incremental progression, reduction in the voluntary redundancy package and the period of salary protection consequent on restructuring, and reduction in the rate for hourly paid lecturers.

The only positive element for some lecturers was the removal of the pay bar, imposed four years ago, which had trapped more than 100 staff at a point just over halfway up the lecturer scale. For the equally large number near the top of the scale, acceptance of deteriorating conditions would be accompanied by a pay freeze of up to three years.

Readers whose memories of FE stretch back to incorporation in the early 1990s will recognise the continuation of a sorry pattern. Indeed, the executive of Newcastle college saw the situation as an opportunity to achieve gains in "contractual flexibility", or, more specifically, to gain what they had failed to do during the previous contract dispute of 2000-1.

While it is tempting to hark back to the "good old days" of LEA control and the Silver Book, the fact is they never were, they were just different.

However, it is true to say that FE staff have borne the brunt of the problems that have afflicted the sector since incorporation. Underfunding of colleges in the 1990s was accompanied by the managerial machismo encouraged by the Roger Ward era of the College Employers' Federation.

Throughout the sector, college managements sought to impose new contracts.

Lecturers in particular have paid in terms of worse contractual conditions and erosion of pay.

What has been left is a disgruntled workforce. It is no coincidence that, year-on-year, more days are lost to industrial action in FE than in any other sector of the economy. It is not that lecturers are especially militant, but they are deeply attached to their profession and committed to the success of their students. For most, the recent industrial action has been as much about protecting the interests of students and the quality of their education as it has been about their own positions.

As well as being branch chair of Natfhe, I have been staff governor at Newcastle college for eight years. During that time, there has been a pleasing move from an almost exclusive focus on the balance sheet towards some concern with the education and training aspects of the institution.

Sadly that concern has mostly manifested itself in terms of measurable performance targets - achievement and retention statistics, lesson observation grades and so on.

While there is a requirement for such data, too much of a focus can, and does, lead to a concentration only of the measurable and an Alice in Wonderland situation where satisfactory becomes unsatisfactory. At the governing body level, I have never known a discussion of staff morale and the experience of working in the college. Governors follow a management-directed agenda of performance targets and quantitative data.

This leads to an indifference to quality of life in the college: staff become units of human resource and recalcitrant tools of action.

It is in this spirit that governors accepted the management view, and appeared prepared for the dismissal of 156 lecturing staff. Of course, that threat to their livelihood had the result that only 25 notices of dismissal were issued 90 days later, although a number took an offer of voluntary severance instead.

For me, the transfer of power to managers is a step too far. For more than a decade of worsening contracts in FE, I have seen maximum workload demands become norms. I have reached an age when acting on principle has coincided with practical possibilities. I had hoped to continue experiencing the comradeship of my colleagues which made teaching in FE so worthwhile, but that is not to be.

The dispute is not over. Newcastle college will remain contested ground for the foreseeable future.

Neil Sharp is a former lecturer at Newcastle college

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