Strike-torn college fails inspection

2nd November 2007 at 00:00

Ofsted follow-up reveals Harlow is failing in the wake of industrial disputes. A college at the centre of one of further education's biggest recent industrial disputes has been failed on all counts by Ofsted after a check- up by inspectors.

Harlow College in Essex was rated satisfactory in January this year, with inspectors saying it had good prospects for improvement. But it has emerged that the grade was based on false claims about its success rates.

The college is also so understaffed in some areas that one class has grown to more than 100 students.

A radical new contract which cuts pay and holiday for some and introduces a new lower grade of lecturer called a "tutor" prompted five days of strikes and led to 80 of the 210 teaching staff leaving rather than accepting the new terms.

Bill Rammell, the further and higher education minister and MP for Harlow, intervened to voice concerns that the college may not be able to teach its full curriculum after losing so many lecturers.

Now, after a monitoring visit, inspectors have said the college is making insufficient progress in student achievement, quality of provision and leadership and management. The Ofsted report criticised the college for overstating its success rates for adult students. Inspectors now say the college has suffered a sharp fall in some adult learning success rates, level 3 (A-level equivalent) results are low and getting worse, and most of the college's results are below the national average.

The report also criticised the experience and qualifications of the 80 new staff. "The majority of these are new to teaching and many have no teaching qualifications, particularly those recruited to the tutor role," it said.

"Many of these staff have joined very recently and have had a minimum amount of preparation."

The University and College Union has now reached an interim agreement to end its dispute over contract changes. A working group, chaired by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, will examine issues such as workload and report back in February.

If that report shows that lecturers are not under excessive strain, the contract could be accepted by the union with some new safeguards over working weekends and holiday entitlement.

Barry Lovejoy, head of further education at UCU, said: "This inspection report doesn't come as a surprise given the circumstances that have led up to it. All our members are doing what they can to move forward and we are looking forward to a more productive relationship in the future."

Extra resources have been given to the college by the Quality Improvement Agency to help it progress and two new governors were appointed at the suggestion of the Learning and Skills Council.

Colin Hindmarch, Harlow College's principal, acknowledged some of the criticisms but said Ofsted also noted improvements in A-level and national diploma results as well as commitment and enthusiasm among the remaining staff to changes in the college's working practices.

"Ofsted had accurately assessed the extent of progress since the January 2007 inspection," he said. "I am pleased that they also recognised and commented positively on those areas where progress had been made."

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