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Why would a plumber work in a college?

There is a potential disaster approaching further education that is as predictable as the path of a comet and about which nothing effective is being done. The issue at the top of Warwickshire college's risk assessment for the past three years has been staffing.

Warwickshire college has sites in leafy Leamington Spa, Moreton Morrell, Henley-in-Arden and Rugby.

It has Department for Education and Skills Beacon status, several Centres of Vocational Excellence, and was awarded grade 1 for leadership and management by the inspectors. So, if an excellent college like this, far from inner-cities, judges that its main business risk is failing to attract and retain staff of a high enough calibre to ensure that the quality of its provision is not compromised, what is going on?

Each year, the Learning and Skills Council publishes staff statistics which present an inescapable truth. An ageing workforce that came into FE when it was a decent career, with higher pay and status than school teaching, is coming up to retirement. How is the new low-paid FE going to attract people who can teach vocational skills?

Take plumbers. My daughter has just been quoted a rate of pound;65 per half hour, plus VAT of course, for a job she needs doing in her flat in London. This fourth plumber (the others never even turned up) looked at the job, didn't fancy doing it, and left. Just imagine how he would enjoy the financial rewards of teaching plumbing in FE. As a bonus he would teach key skills and have to be teacher-trained within two years.

Some attempts have been made to attract staff into FE in selected curriculum areas by the golden hello initiative. Most FE teaching staff so attracted appear to have taken the money then run. An evaluation of the golden hello initiative was carried out by Vicky Hopwood of York Consulting Ltd for the Department for Education and Skills last spring. The full report was available on the DfES website for all to see.

The initiative was never intended to address the issue of pay. Indeed, the evidence of the York study suggests that, while this remains the central constraint for stakeholders, it will limit the extent that golden hellos could have an impact on recruitment and retention.

Other factors are making recruitment of young staff to FE problematical.

Professor Richard Scase spoke at the Association of Colleges' conference this year and several of the statistics he quoted should have given the Government a wake-up call. How can you recruit what is not there? According to Scase, there will be 1.3 million fewer workers aged 25-35 in the UK in 2010. Why should the remaining young people choose teaching as a career? If they did, why would they then choose FE above the better-funded and rewarded schools and sixth-form colleges as a career? Why indeed? The evidence for this inequality of funding is accepted. The review of the future role of FE colleges carried out for the DfES and the LSC found:

"There is clear evidence that the FE sector is under-funded compared with schools. There is clear evidence of a funding gap between colleges and school sixth forms of at least 12 per cent and possibly much more."

Sadly, poor pay is only part of it. The loyal cohort of staff coming up to retirement probably considered the following facts, which were more about the likely quality of their working life, before joining FE in the 70s and 80s. "The pay is poor compared with industry, as is the working environment", "I will be teaching people who want to learn", "there is a good pension", "the holidays are good, so I will be able to spend quality time with my family" and "if I do burn out, early retirement is a possibility".

How many of these are still true? Well, the pay and working environment are, comparatively, even worse now.

Bob Nunn is quality manager at Warwickshire college

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