Further to climb

Further education is seen as a bad place to work, but HR professionals are taking steps to change that. Kirstie Redford reports.

Employers have a poor opinion of the further education (FE) sector. In September, the CBI’s annual employment trends survey found that only 46% of employers were satisfied with the training provided by FE colleges. But do colleges deserve this negative image, and what can they do to turn it around?

HR has a key role to play in this, according to Susan Anderson, director of HR policy at the CBI. “The overall perception is that some colleges do not provide good quality [training], and this has turned into a bit of a stereotype,” she says. “If HR can promote excellence by providing good training and start to benchmark standards, it would help the sector move on.”

However, this is easier said than done.

Limited resources

Like most sectors reliant on government funding, any shortfalls in the services provided by colleges are arguably because of too little money and too much bureaucracy.

The provision of adult training for employers is just one of the services that FE colleges deliver. They also teach those who want to learn in their spare time, educate 16- to 19 year-olds and provide workplace training for older staff. The complexity of the services they offer means there is a myriad of different funding and auditing bodies that college management has to deal with.

Nicola Perkins, director of HR at Swansea College, says employees spend too much time focusing on administration.

“Bureaucracy exists at so many different levels and staff have little time to focus on the job in hand,” she says. “Everything needs to be demonstrated with paper trails.”

Perkins had to create more administrative roles to deal with the paperwork. “This eats into our budget,” she says. “Funding bodies should understand the accumulative effect this has. Processes need to be robust, but there should be more sampling rather than 100% checks for everyone.”

Joanne Dean, director of personnel and legal services at Barking College, has had similar experiences. “There is too much time spent proving you can do the job rather than doing the job,” she says. “While I totally accept that we have to be accountable for public money, the system is far too time-consuming as it stands.”

Colleges also face competition for funding from schools. The Association of Colleges (AoC) says there is currently a 13% gap between the government funding given to colleges and that given to schools for sixth-form education.

Julian Gravatt, director of funding and training at the AoC, says: “We are campaigning about this funding gap as it means colleges struggle to offer comparative pay for sixth-form teachers, making it harder to retain staff.”

Dean says she is facing strikes over low pay. “The government is not putting money into the sector. Although we pay the AoC’s recommended rate, we are still being balloted for strike action. In terms of modernising pay, we’ve introduced all the AoC’s recommendations such as job evaluations and performance-related pay, but we still need that extra cash injection.”

Budgets will be under further strain with the government’s plans to introduce new diplomas in 14 different subjects for 14- to 19-year-olds. If this goes ahead, students could opt to study for vocational qualifications instead of traditional A-levels.

Gravatt says: “Unlike a subject such as history, vocational education is hard to keep up with – skills and equipment move on and need upgrading constantly. Colleges also need to find teachers with new skills to deliver diplomas, but they are only able to offer the same low pay.”

Skill seekers

Vocational training for adults is already causing headaches for HR because of the difficulty of attracting assessors with the right skills. With skilled workers, such as plumbers and electricians, who are able to command high salaries, tempting them to leave their jobs is challenging.

“Electrical assessors are the most pressing issue for us,” says Perkins. “We have a huge number of electrical students waiting to be taught. We also set up a new plumbing department two years ago, but we are still facing shortages.”

Perkins uses ‘very direct’ marketing techniques to attract staff. “We’re contacting every company in the area and asking if they are fed up with being self-employed and are interested in giving something back to the community,” she says.

Another tactic aims to provide a halfway bridge, where people can continue working, but teach part-time. “This helps people feel more comfortable about making a long-term career change,” says Perkins.

Dean finds it difficult to recruit staff to teach engineering and construction. “People have great skills in teaching these subjects but don’t have the academic qualifications to back them up,” she says. “We have to write it into contracts that they will qualify within two years – this extra pressure puts many prospective staff off.”

Peter Barnard, HR director and registrar at Grimsby Institute of Further & Higher Education, says employers need to understand how difficult it is to keep up with industry standards.

“Finding people with the right mix of skills needed for vocational teaching can be testing,” he says. “Employers don’t always know what they are demanding. If you don’t spend money on retraining staff and buying new equipment, before you know it you have fallen behind the game.”

To add to the problem, vocational lecturers are also expected to be trained in teaching ‘skills for life’, namely numeracy, literacy and English for speakers of other languages. However, colleges are struggling to find time to upgrade lecturers’ skills.

Dean believes these basic skills should be included in initial teacher training. “At the moment, initial teacher training is funded by the government, but training for ‘skills for life’ is not,” she says. “Training is disruptive and we have to throw a lot of resources into it, meaning we have less money left over to reward teachers for learning the skills.”

With so many problems stemming from lack of funding leading to low pay, Evan Williams, employment policy manager at the AoC, says colleges need to emphasise other benefits available to help attract staff.

“You have to remember that conditions in the sector are quite generous. There is still a very paternal level of care,” he says. “Pensions are good, creches are available and there are excellent maternity benefits. There may not be any big bonuses, but there is plenty of job satisfaction.”

Success stories

Some colleges are making progress. For example, the Grimsby Institute has increased turnover by 70% to £30m over the past four years. Barnard, who has witnessed this turnaround in the college’s fortunes, says HR has played a key role in its success.

“I’ve worked alongside the principal to enhance our benefits package to help retain staff and to position the college firmly in the business community,” he says. “We see ourselves as a partner to business, with clear aspirations. The college behaves in the same way as a manufacturing outlet – it’s not just about operating on a local level, but regionally and internationally too.”

Among other initiatives, Grimsby Institute has formed partnerships with colleges abroad, launched its own live TV channel, and received an award from the Department for Education and Skills for innovation and creativity.

“You need this high profile to get business links,” says Barnard. “For too long now, the sector has allowed itself to be described as the ‘Cinderella of education’.

“Rather than sitting and complaining, HR should be leading change.”

The Association of Colleges’ 10th annual conference is taking place this week. For more details, go to www.aoc.co.uk

Stereotypical views of the sector

  • It offers poor levels of service.

  • Training standards do not match those provided by private training companies.

  • It offers inferior academic standards to sixth-forms in schools.

  • It lacks innovation.

  • It fails to engage with employers.

  • Staff have poor working conditions and are offered low pay.

Reality of the sector

  • Multiple layers of bureaucracy mean staff are left chasing paper rather than focusing on their jobs.

  • Inadequate cash injections from the government have led to recruitment and retention problems.

  • A 13% funding gap between state funding for sixth-form schools and further education colleges has led to pay discrepancies for staff.

  • Salaries may be low, but benefits such as pensions are generous.

  • Not all colleges are the same – some of them are reporting record profits and creating innovative links with employers.

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