Union tackles instructor workload

Further education and sixth form college technicians are being pushed into new and sometimes inappropriate roles because of cuts in funding, the public service union Unison said this week.

Traditionaly technicians maintained and demonstrated equipment to students under the supervision of teaching staff. But now cuts, and changes in the learning environment have led to new responsibilities. A more student-centred learning approach has led to technicians being responsible for student supervision and assessment.

Unison this week published guidance for colleges and their technical staff - often called instructors - on the parameters which should be followed. "The development of the instructor role has encouraged some colleges to push these duties into areas which were previously the sole responsibility of teaching staff, for example responsibility for student conduct. Unison's view is that this is inappropriate and may place instructors in a vulnerable position. " It is up to lecturers to ensure students are properly trained before they can use equipment outside the classroom. Teaching staff, says the union should maintain a register of students competent to operate specific machinery. "Instructors should not be held responsible for the conduct of students other than to advise and warn them in situations where they observe potential dangers. Dangerous or inappropriate behavious should be reported to the lecturer.

Colleges should make an assessment of the all the risks instructors might face. The obvious ones include chemicals, machinery, noise and VDUs. But others include understaffing (stress from overwork) and lone working, with the potential threat of violence and intimidation.

Instructors may now supervise and assess individuals or groups, sometimes without a member of teaching staff present. Unison warns that an instructor should not be responsible for designing learning programmes, setting assignments, or devising marking schemes. They should only be responsible for assessment against specific criteria, based on direct observation. Instructors spending considerable amounts of time assessing students would need their own technical back-up.

Keith Sonnet, Unison head of local government said: "We have been approached by instructors with very real worries about their health and safety responsibilities and their legal status when supervising students. There is much good work going on in colleges but we want to see more of them adopting best practice to help improve the position of technicians and instructors. " he added.

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