Untapped resource right under your nose

If colleges are to be a big player in a drive for skilled workforce, it's time to start reform close to home

Realising potential, raising skills, improving life chances - phrases that are laudable, noble even, but will they become a reality for support staff in further education? The last set of Success for All reforms in 2002 promised to develop the leaders, teachers, trainers and support staff of the future. The important role of all staff was acknowledged, as well as the need to improve recruitment and retention through better pay and conditions of service.

Teachers and leaders, the report said, should be able to gain relevant qualifications, and support staff should be given the opportunity to further their careers. Have support staff noticed the wind of change? Or even a light breeze?

Improvements for the FE workforce are exceedingly slow in coming, but we wonder whether any progress is being made at all in the case of the staff who often bring up the rear.

My union, Unison, fears that continuing professional development intended for all staff will not trickle beyond teachers and senior managers. Of course, we understand the imperative to transform teaching staff into a qualified group, especially if transferability across 14 to 19 education is to be achieved and comparable salaries justified. And we are keen that leaders and managers (who may be in our membership) have access to training and professional development to equip them for the demanding role of running colleges .

But given that workforce improvement must come from mainstream budgets, priorities will be set. Where will that leave support staff?

Neglecting the development of support staff could be a missed trick for the sector. We are very familiar with the training conundrum: everyone sings its praises and wants more, but no one wants to pay for it.

The lack of skills is lamented and blamed for low productivity and the absence of competitive edge, but this awareness fails to translate into investment in staff training. Time and again, Unison hears from its members, who have used our own Open College, that their educational experience has been life-changing.

They tell a story of schooldays of failure, humiliation and rejection, of the learning experience being turned around by workplace education. Its power not only to impart knowledge and skills but to build confidence, unlock potential and improve performance, goes without saying.

Short-sighted employers pay the price for wanting visible products, such as a new building or equipment, rather than the less immediate but valuable asset of better motivated and able staff.

Lurking in the recesses of the management mind sometimes are fears that trained staff will leave and other employers will reap the benefits. Or worse: that trained staff are more challenging and may want better pay and conditions; comments, sadly, that I have actually heard.

FE prides itself on inclusiveness, second chances and improving disadvantaged lives. If support staff have a training mountain to climb, it is an even steeper ascent for the part-time, temporary and low paid.

Unison supports about 6,000 learners a year; typically, 90 per cent left school at 16 and 50 per cent are over 45. Last year, our Learning at Work programme enrolled 2,788 students, of which more than 27 per cent were from black and minority ethnic groups; nearly 84 per cent were women and nearly 9 per cent had physical or learning difficulties.

Union learning representatives and advisers are a big force in changing the skills landscape. Our network of 1,500 union learning reps in England is growing and is a very diverse group.

Our website boasts many an example of rags-to-riches educational experience, such as Alfie Powley, assistant education officer at Newcastle City Council who left school with no certificates and was a manual worker for 27 years, until he was bitten by the learning bug.

Not all staff want to climb a greasy pole, but training is not just about advancement, it's doing what you do to the best of your ability, self-respect and being valued.

Support staff are not the amorphous mass that this inadequate phrase suggests. They are an amalgam of site, administrative, technical, professional and learning support staff with a vast array of skills and experience, central to meeting the needs of learners.

The development of ladders of qualifications for particular groups is long overdue. All staff should be able to progress, take professional, teaching or management qualifications if they wish.

Principals have an untapped resource under their noses and would benefit enormously from a whole staff approach to training and career development.

We do not underestimate the challenge that this presents, not least for the sector skills councils.

But if colleges are going to be a major player in the drive to achieve a skilled workforce, they must start with their own. Failure to train is training for failure and that is not just about teachers and senior managers.

Christine Lewis is a national officer of Unison, the public sector workers'


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