Treat us like infants and you'll get a deskilled staff

Stephen Jones

"That's us," said my friend, pointing at the television screen. "That's exactly like us." We were watching an old episode of Alas Smith and Jones on one of those 200 or so channels that you pay for but never get around to viewing.

The sketch was the one where they visit a restaurant and decide that they'll have the children's menu. As you may recall, it comes complete with high chairs, plastic "scoop" bibs and finger food, which the two comics proceed to happily plaster all over themselves.

"So, are you trying to tell me something about the canteen at your college?" I asked, ever the innocent.

"I don't mean it's literally us. But it's a metaphor for what has happened to our jobs. We're not college lecturers any more . we're babies. Little by little we've been infantilised," he said.

His argument was that, over the past 15 or so years, we've progressively lost autonomy in all areas of our professional lives. And you can't help admitting he has a point. Where once we were in control, now others have control over us.

Certainly that's the case with the curriculum. Whatever you teach at whatever level, the increasing reliance upon narrow and compartmentalised learning means less discretion for the teacher and more standardisation.

This is good for the politicians, because it enables pass rates to progress steadily upwards. Where qualifications are externally marked, as GCSEs and A-levels are, you teach to the test. As you, and the students, become better at playing this game, so more of those who sit the exams can be squeezed through. And if they really are not going to make it, then you make sure they are not entered.

Where outside scrutiny is absent, as in many vocational qualifications, the same applies, only more so. With pressure from all sides - government, Ofsted, managers - constantly to raise achievement, it's hard to resist the temptation to give them what they want. Most teachers still won't cheat. But with moderation regimes becoming increasingly "light touch", they might sometimes be forgiven for going with the flow.

Such an approach comes at a price. And it's not only the students whose creativity is stifled. If you are to be judged almost entirely on your results and teaching to the tests gets results, then you teach to the tests.

Outside the teaching role, it's more of the same. Here the infantilising mantra is "Nanny knows best", though for "nanny" read "manager".

Once, we decided for ourselves how to test prospective students, how to interview, select, enrol and induct them. And while there were always guidelines as to how we should cajole them in tutorials or advise them on their futures, we had discretion as to how such guidelines were applied.

Today very few lecturers enjoy this sort of freedom. Rather, they are simply told how they will do such things and left in no doubt as to what will happen if they don't. One-size-fits-all systems are imposed on them, with standardised paperwork and pro formas that require as much time to complete as the procedures themselves. The fact that these documents constantly change, and that the new version often looks nothing like the "must use" one of the previous year, is not to be commented upon. Yours not to reason why, yours just to comply!

Lest you think these are simply the nostalgic ramblings of a hoary old lecturer long past his sell-by date, let me cite another "That's us" moment recently. This time it related to a piece of academic research in which lecturers at three Midlands colleges were asked detailed questions about their working lives.

Accounts of the research were published a month or two back, but I've only just managed to get my hands on the full report, Reforming further education: the changing labour process for college lecturers. It was compiled by Kim Mather and Les Worrall, of the University of Wolverhampton business school, and Roger Seifert of Keele University.

Their findings reflect what they call a "deskilling" rather than infantilising of lecturers, but it amounts to much the same thing. They conclude: "Lecturers . have been dispossessed of key job controls."

To illustrate this, they draw a comparison with the way the mass production techniques of the industrial revolution replaced the old "craft" ways of working. Lecturers who once were allowed to exercise their own skills and judgment, now find themselves engaging in "a factory system of production where standardisation . has taken place . in order to keep costs down".

The full report makes for depressing - if predictable - reading. Nearly 500 lecturers were consulted, both in face-to-face interviews and questionnaires. One of the most marked findings relates to workload and the way this has intensified. Almost all respondents reported that they had to work harder than previously, with 86 per cent saying they found their jobs increasingly stressful. Well over 90 per cent also said they had to work more than their contracted hours to keep on top of the job.

The researchers also note the growing gap between the increasing number of managers and the fast diminishing cohort of lecturers. Interviews with managers revealed "an overriding preoccupation with securing improved staff utilisation, with reducing staff costs and achieving greater labour flexibility". So while lecturers claim to have been squeezed until the pips squeaked, managers see it as their duty to squeeze some more.

Finally, the report's authors turn to the issue of quality. They found that "cost reduction criteria assume ascendancy over quality criteria, despite the rhetoric of quality that currently pervades academic institutions" - another "That's us" moment. Teachers everywhere bemoan the way the omnipresent drive for quality contrasts with their experience of what is happening in the classroom.

Just because you stick a BMW badge on your car doesn't mean that it is a BMW. Rather, when you look under the bonnet, you just might find that your reliable old Ford has been replaced by a Lada.

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Stephen Jones

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