Deregulation and cuts provoke fears of a return to the bad old days

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Following David Cameron’s pledge last week to rip up employment red tape in the name of better delivery, where does this leave the promises in Lord Lingfield’s interim report on professionalism in further education (FE) to maintain teaching standards in colleges and training organisations?

In an effort to pre-empt critics of the report’s call for unregulated minimum thresholds of training and staff development, Lingfield insisted:

In all these matters we emphasize our core belief that staff training, professional updating, competency and behaviour are essentially matters between employer and employee. 

There are sufficient statutory arrangements in place through, for example, employment legislation and the requirements for staff performance management and learner safeguarding set out in Ofsted’s Common Inspection Framework, to ensure at least a threshold level of professional competence.

But measures in the Beecroft report to the Coalition Government change all that. While reforms such as the ability to fire at will may be blocked as a step too far, other aspects, including some repeal of equality laws and limits on employment tribunal payouts, will not be and, indeed, are already being pushed through.

At a glance, these measures and Lingfield’s recommendations appear to be addressing different issues – but history says otherwise. The focus in Lingfield is on matters such as the removal of mandatory status for the Institute for Learning (IfL) and an end to compulsory initial teacher education (ITE), while Beecroft is about flexibility across the whole UK workforce. The last time two such reform programmes came together, however, the effects on FE were considerable. It was the early 1990s, when radical deregulation was enacted under the then President of the Board of Trade Michael Heseltine and the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act was running its course.

By the mid-1990s, after incorporation of colleges, a quarter of the workforce was lost through redundancy and early retirement, to be replaced by unqualified part-timers. Standards of teaching and learning plummeted, according to further education inspectors; UK skills needs were not being addressed and high-profile scams and scandals such as the Halton College franchising abuses dominated media headlines.

When the unions cried foul, the then chief executive of the Colleges’ Employers’ Forum, Roger Ward, told the TES: ‘There are sufficient statutory regulations in place to ensure standards and, besides, it is for the employers to decide what’s best. They will consult the staff and managers.’
It is not surprising therefore that the unions were somewhat wary when the Lingfield interim report came out in March. But it was not only the unions; employers too had concerns. Lynne Sedgmore, Executive Director of the 157 Group, said:

We remain cautious … about the proposed replacement of various teaching registrations with ‘largely discretionary advice to employers on appropriate qualifications for staff and continuous professional development’. It is important to ensure that there is no diminution in the overall quality of the teaching profession in further education, which does need some form of oversight and support.

And here is the crunch. The problem with the Lingfield report is that – while many aspects for simplifying the system won general support – it is too often seen as not genuinely impartial. It might sound all the right notes for the Coalition Government, but it is seen among many employers and unions as deeply flawed on at least three counts.

First, the review’s committee of four experts bases the inquiry’s legitimacy on the uncritical acceptance of government deregulation policies that lack a clear evidence base. Second, among other assumptions, it virtually pre-supposes the need to remove mandatory status from the IfL, which it mistakenly sees as the FE equivalent of the General Teaching Council. Third, the inquiry group failed to cite research it had in its possession that contradicts some key recommendations. This included research evaluating FE teachers’ qualifications, commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which suggests greater success with training and qualifications such as PTLLS (Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector) than the Lingfield team were willing to acknowledge.

Authors of the report to BIS said: ‘Regulations have been successful in introducing a minimum level of competence among teachers and trainers through the qualifications, particularly in WBL [work-based learning] and ACL [adult and community learning] where it’s less likely teachers would have had any prior teacher training.’ Drawing on case studies, the report stressed: ‘One of the strong messages from the case studies is of the importance of maintaining momentum towards achieving the required qualifications.’

Also, the direction taken contrasts with competitor countries that education ministers cite as having a much better grip on education and training than England, including the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Germany. In fairness, all these points may be revisited for the final report due out in July. But by then, the bigger political picture will have moved on with further deregulation of employment legislation and further austerity cuts. So the lowest common denominator of a ‘threshold of professional competence’ suggested by Lingfield may be all that’s on offer.

Nor have the unions displayed clever tactics during the inquiry. One senior Unison source admitted some naiveté when they ‘went for the jugular’ on IfL. ‘We may have played into the hands of government‘, he said, the consequence being that unions are also marginalised in the recommendations. The University and College Union (UCU) on the other hand is more forthright. Dan Taubman, Senior National Official, said: ‘We are happy that IfL has gone, although sad for the staff who were not to blame for this whole situation.’ The notion that the IfL had already ‘gone’ may be somewhat premature but the sentiment is not altogether surprising because the teacher unions see themselves as the independent professional associations.

By putting such strong emphasis on the need to clip the wings of the IfL, Lingfield, intentionally or otherwise, shifted much of the focus away from the core issues of training and the need to build up a storehouse of good practice and exemplary work backed by sound research. Too much kerfuffle in the media and in conferences fails to distinguish between the fate of IfL and the prospects for CPD and ITE, or between the future of such training and the quality of teaching and learning across the sector. This is a point made variously over the past few weeks by City & Guilds, NIACE, the 157 Group, London University Institute of Education, Universities Council for the Education of Teachers (UCET), the Association of Colleges, UCU and NUS.

James Noble Rogers, Chief Executive of UCET, summed up the views of most when he said he was ‘appalled by the possible removal of the teacher training requirement’. There was some hope if training could be anchored in or akin to the Higher Education Academy (HEA) framework or professional standards but that could not be left wholly to employer discretion. If, as suggested, the Learning and Skills Improvement Service adopts IfL’s role, officials have already quietly made it clear to ministers that they expect the resources and capacity to take a more robust stand in raising thresholds of professionalism across the sector.

Andrew Morris, researcher, consultant and member of the Policy Consortium says:

In many professions the idea that the profession embodies specialist knowledge (and skill) is essential and that this knowledge advances, accumulates, and is passed on to each generation is central. Control of ITE and CPD processes is vital to this as well as its connection to R&D. Strong, evidence-based CPD is reckoned to be a distinguishing factor in Finland – widely acknowledged as having one of the highest performing educational systems in the world. The FE sector has always been weak on this; will the minimum threshold idea take us even further back?

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Posted in Employers, FE colleges, Staff development