Under the stairs and underpaid
If further education has been the Cinderella sector, its support staff have felt even more below stairs. Just as the Victorian big house needed skilled staff to keep it going, so colleges needed non-teaching staff. Like the nineteenth century cooks and gardeners, college technicians and office staff have always been invisible.
Now FE is in a state of flux. New courses, new technology and new teaching methods have blurred distinctions between teaching and support roles. Radical changes in funding and management structures have redirected attitudes to jobs and staff relationships.
Incorporation in 1993 brought deregulation. College managers were left to chart ways through unexplored territory as local terms and conditions disappeared.
Many laboratory and workshop support staff were employed under old contracts which no longer described the reality. Technicians, who had regarded their work as machine maintenance with a bit of demonstrating, were drawn into teaching and assessment. New courses required detailed assessment and record-keeping. Technicians knew more about the curriculum and took a more central role, previously the lecturers' domain, but without the cash rewards.
Equipment also became more varied and advanced. Librarians have to master technology as well as needing to know the new learning procedures. Not only were there more students who were expected to become more independent learners, they also had to access such new resources as PCs, networks and CD-Roms. They needed support.
IT, business management, art and design, graphics and multimedia all required students to work on complicated equipment. Time spent on student support developed a new set of competencies but threatened to unbalance the old job descriptions.
Unison, the support-staff union, understood that "because the range of instructor duties varies from college to college, there is no single salary point or scale that can apply in all cases". It told its members to look to their job descriptions to ensure that their skills were recognised.
While some colleges undertook job evaluations, the national picture was patchy. Support staff saw opportunities to broaden their skills and upgrade their jobs. But where was the machinery for professional progression? Did a system dedicated to upgrading the nation's skills for the next century do the same for its own staff?
Many support staff who needed training for assessment and teaching qualifications, such as the City and Guilds teaching certificate, were not only expected to study in their own time but to arrange their own cover too.
Nor was educational change the only pressure. As the new funding procedures tightened the screws, colleges tried to increase student recruitment and cut costs. Impoverished teenagers wanting qualifications found themselves losing benefits if they studied for more than 16 hours a week. Courses became shorter, classes bigger, and lecturers were laid off.
Students were doing more individual, supervised work which would not be counted in the 16 hours. Such supervision was usually done by demonstrators on pound;11,000 a year, rather than lecturers on pound;20,000.
But financial changes were not just about getting the job done more cheaply. As the funding system became more like rocket science, some college staff began to feel that management piorities were from another planet. Were colleges about education or about making money?
Nixon Tod, a Unison steward, had some sympathy for managers as well as his members. "It depends on the mentality of the management. If they believe in a learning culture and treating staff with respect, you can get somewhere, but if the accountants run it, they're looking over their shoulders the whole time."
The appearance was given in some colleges that selling courses for profit was more important than their usefulness to students. Others became involved in disastrous franchising and money-raising schemes. Spending money on consultants to tell you how to get money was "an unglorious process" in the eyes of Roger Parnell, another Unison steward, and many of his colleagues.
Although the unions continued annual pay negotiations with the Association of Colleges, the employer-dominated representative organisation for the sector, the agreed rate was only recommended, not mandatory. In 1999, Unison launched a "Claim it!" campaign when less than 50 per cent of colleges paid the agreed rate.
Cleaning and catering staff are usually the lowest paid. Some had been claiming benefits during the holidays until contradictory decisions were given in benefits tribunals. Some districts had continued to make payments, but in others it was ruled that term-time workers were available for work during the holiday and therefore could not claim. Unison went to count and won - initially. But the decision was reversed in the Court of Appeal. The union has now moved its own appeal to the House of Lords.
Nor was there any agreed procedure on job evaluation: line managers could interpret job definitions and colleges could pay what they thought they could afford. Negotiations had to be at a local level, but with some managements de-recognising unions and adopting a more top-down management style, systematic training and regrading fell by the wayside. Times have changed again. Macho management styles are less fashionable and funding will be reorganised under the new Learning and Skills Council.
Unison is cautiously optimistic for its members. It is concerned about practical details of the Bill setting up the council and the implications for its members.
The 47 local learning and skills councils will not be co-terminous with any other authority. They will be responsible for their own community training, which may lead to difficulties. The dual inspection system - with Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, entering the equation - could lead to administrative duplication and confusion. The enormous amount of data required may have to be collected, processed and presented in quite different ways.
The new funding criteria are still out for consultation, although hopes are that they will be less convoluted. Sixth form colleges' close links with the local education authorities are another grey area.
At national level there has been some co-operation between unions and employers. As well as the annual pay negotiations, the Association of Colleges has joined Unison, Natfhe and others to issue guidance on employment issues.
The association plans to work with the unions to set up a scheme this year to investigate job evaluation. Meetings have been planned and the association is committed to buying in expertise.
Its employment director, Jocelyn Prudence, is optimistic: "There has been a lot of joint work on a whole raft of issues. Things are moving forward."