Staff skills gap is highlighted

5th July 1996 at 01:00
Training may be needed so employees can cope with demands in a sector which has radically redefined itself. Lucy Ward reports. Moves to create the first framework for staff development in further education will highlight a widening skills gap in the sector.

Members of the body set up to pave the way for occupational standards in FE believe analysis of skills will reveal a need for more training to help staff cope with fundamental changes since incorporation.

Though information on staff development spending by colleges is sketchy, investment is widely thought to have shrunk over the past three years as institutions face a host of financial pressures.

However, the skills demanded of lecturers, managers and support staff are more sophisticated and varied than before.

The new FE Staff Development Forum, launched by the Further Education Development Agency, is charged with imposing a training structure on a sector still in a state of flux.

The new body, with a 20-strong membership from colleges, unions, employer associations and others, is to redraw the FE training map in line with the Government's policy of developing national standards for all jobs.

Though it cannot provide new national vocational qualifications itself, the forum will pave the way for their development. It will advise on and develop a framework for initial teacher training and continuing professional development, and spread the word on good practice.

FE has done without any of the trappings of a coherent national training system. There is no central agency responsible for providing advice or training for would-be lecturers, no set career pattern and no formal qualification requirements.

The result is a sector where teacher training remains hazy. A mapping exercise carried out by FEDA as a precursor to the forum's launch revealed the wide range of qualifications held by lecturers, support staff and managers, but did not attempt to assess numbers.

John Mowbray, general secretary of the Association of College Management - one of the unions representing senior college staff - points to "a dearth of training analysis within the whole sector". Carrying out such research must be the first task of the new forum, he says.

Derek Betts, assistant secretary of the lecturers' union NATFHE, also insists the forum "must not start from a blank sheet of paper. There has to be a more detailed map of what exists - who has got what, where the gaps are and how standards might be set to fill them".

In the absence of detailed information, an analysis by the union of college inspection reports suggests around 78 per cent of FE lecturers and managers have some teaching qualification. The majority, particularly in sixth-form colleges, will have gained a postgraduate certificate in education or its FE equivalent before starting their careers, while others qualified at the same level via in-service training.

In the past few years, increasing numbers have gained so-called Training and Development Lead Body units in verification and assessment.

Managers too may boast a mix of qualifications or none. Some have a management qualification, possibly an education or general Masters in business administration, or a general MBA. Others have gained competence-based qualifications under the Management Charter Initiative.

But despite the range of certificates adorning walls throughout the sector, NATFHE's analysis suggests colleges' overall investment in staff development has diminished since incorporation from 1 per cent to around 0.88 per cent of income. In the days of local authority control, cash for training filtered through via a range of now-defunct programmes.

Left to fund training themselves, with help if they are lucky from European funds or the single regeneration budget, colleges have cut back, according to Derek Betts, a member of the forum. Part-time lecturers, numbering at least 200,000 and increasingly relied on by colleges as full-time redundancies spiral, are a particular concern. "Many colleges will not pay for training for part-timers teaching under a certain number of hours a week. Even assuming we develop new qualifications, who is to say part-timers will be able to take them?" John Mowbray believes management training has been an early victim of college cuts, at a time when new skills are most needed. "Many current managers have come through the traditional ranks of the ordinary culture of FE, yet that has totally changed. A business culture had developed and many are just not ready for it."

John Brenchley, FEDA director of training and consultancy, says colleges have learnt to become more focused in directing training cash to particular individuals and projects. Their spending on staff development is no less, he suggests, but the demands have mushroomed. "The range of skills being asked of teaching staff is more diverse. They need frontline managerial skills and IT training, which put big demands on budgets."

Gauging colleges' spending on training will be one of the first tasks of the new forum, pledges its chairman Terry Melia, outgoing FEFC chief inspector. The much-needed analysis of qualifications available will be another priority, but there will be no attempt to narrow the options to create a rational framework. Unlike Chris Woodhead , his counterpart in the school sector, Dr Melia has no vision of a national training curriculum for FE teachers.

"The great value of FE is you can draw people in from a wide range of backgrounds. We have to leave the way open for on the job training."

The forum's aim will be to ensure any qualifications gaps are filled so that staff, particularly part-timers, can have their achievements clearly recognised.

Anne Smith, principal of John Ruskin College and a forum member, hopes its work will help colleges who seek to take on staff who bring professional skills from industry but have no teaching qualifications. "We can train someone to our satisfaction but they could not necessarily transfer that elsewhere. If they get that kind of training then some kind of portable qualification is no more than they deserve."

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