Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 63 - 79)




  63. Welcome to the Committee. You have been sitting at the back hearing the way in which we have been trying to balance these sessions. It may sound a bit hackneyed by now but what is your view of where we are? If you take the snapshot of where the last Select Committee inquiry was, what we want to do is to learn from that process. It is getting on for three years, there have been some fundamental changes but from where you are standing, representing your people who are actually making the system work because they actually deliver the service, how do you think it is going? What are the major positive changes and what are the major challenges? Who would like to start?
  (Mr Mackney) We have just discussed that and it is me.

  64. I hope you did not have to have a vote.
  (Mr Mackney) No, it was by consent, which is the way we usually work. We should be on the threshold of a major break through in lifelong learning but actually I think the people here to a degree have been biting back their words. FE is still in crisis. There are MPs who will know that from their own colleges. It depends on what set of figures you read but we still have a fifth to a quarter in financial difficulty. There has been plenty of attention to funding to targets and outputs in our view but insufficient attention to the processes which convert the funding into the outputs. From the point of view of our members, they have seen over the last four years major improvements, particularly in the atmosphere in colleges, the decline of macho management, unnecessary competition, people working together better; but they still see themselves as a neglected sector, media attention to the scandals, unfair use of league tables, and not a recognition of the miracles that they achieve every day with students who have usually been written off by others. So you have 50 per cent who reach level two in schools but by age 19 FE has got that to 75 per cent; and 40 per cent of those going through to higher education are coming through the further education route. But the attention here is always on higher education and schools so this is the neglected sector many people still feel. I am assuming you will ask us other questions about pay in a minute.

  65. When you say "here", do you mean in this Committee?
  (Mr Mackney) No, in Parliament in general.

  66. I was going to point out that there was a 20 year gap in looking at higher education and we are coming back to FE after a short period.
  (Mr Mackney) I am very impressed that you have come back so soon and we are very grateful for that, we think the focus is absolutely right. I do not think there is a distinction between further and higher education. The key to hitting the 50 per cent target for HE, or one of the major keys, lies in further education.

  67. I am sure the Committee would agree with you on that. Christina McAnea?
  (Ms McAnea) From UNISON's point of view, certainly from our members' point of view, although I would agree with what Paul has said about the fact that the atmosphere has probably improved in the last few years, I think if anything the situation, certainly in morale of support staff, has probably worsened over the past couple of years . I think that is for a number of reasons, not least of which is pay but also because in relative terms they are doing worse now than they were a couple of years ago. That is in comparison with people who work in the college alongside them but also probably in comparison with other groups in both the public and particularly the private sector. There has been a range of initiatives that have come out from Government, for example on teaching staff, not just in FE but across the education sector, but there have also been initiatives from the Government aimed at support staff in schools and there has been no mirror of that in the FE side and I think that is beginning to get through to people who work in the FE side, they feel that they are being neglected. It may be that there is a change coming but there seems to be no particular evidence of that at the moment in FE. That is one of the key ones. Like Paul, I assume that we will discuss pay, etc.
  (Mr Mackney) If you were to phone any staff room in any college—You have talked about people whingeing but I think you will find they have got quite good reasons for it. In the LASDA survey 66 per cent of staff did not feel the college genuinely cared about the welfare of its staff, 64 per cent did not feel they had any sense of job security, 72 per cent were worried about risk taking because of fear of failure. You are not going to re-skill a nation with a demoralised workforce.

Mr Shaw

  68. On the point you were making about the key to hitting the 50 per cent and, as the Chairman said, we would all agree that FE is the springboard to achieving that, so therefore we need to widen participation, there has been evidence to suggest that we are not widening the participation in FE in the way that the Government and all of us would want to see. Do you agree with that?
  (Mr Mackney) I think that is true. Let us just take one staggering fact: there is now more higher education conducted in further education colleges than was conducted in the whole of the country in higher education institutions at the time of the Robbins Report. Because of our age and generation we have to move well forward from that but the question is what can we do to raise retention and achievement within FE? The problem is there has been a focus on numbers, what is called in the business "bums on seats", hitting student targets, without looking at the factors which lead to people dropping out and not raising achievement sufficiently, although achievement has not gone down. I think the key to that is what actually happens in the interchange between staff, and that is support staff as well as teaching staff, and the students. What we saw in the 1990s was a withdrawal of educational support—it was described as "under-teaching", I think, by Ruth earlier—so that in order to make the money go round and get more students you reduced the tuition time, you had casualised part-time or agency staff who were not available to the student outside the classroom, they were just paid by the classroom hour, you had expensive staff, 20,000, 22,000 possibly—a key point, we do not know the figures because nobody keeps the statistics, we use a kind of pin the tail on the donkey approach to working out what staffing statistics are—22,000 possibly out of 75,000 full-time lecturers who went down the road in the last five years of the last century who had the experience, some maybe needed to move on but a generation wasted. The experience of the students has been often less support in class compared with a sixth form or a sixth form college. Sometimes this was justified by saying they could go to a learning resource centre, which cynically are known by our members as fo-fo and yo-yo centres, and I can explain the acronym in a minute if you wish.

  69. We are always in need of more acronyms.
  (Mr Mackney) I think the new MPs in particular are used to yo-yo and fo-fo. It is where the hours of the student might go down from six to four or five to four, the number of classes a lecturer takes goes up commensurately, the number of students they deal with do, but they say "it is okay if you only have four hours because for the extra hour you can go to a learning resource centre". This shows the degree of cynicism that has spread. They should be extremely useful add-ons, they are usually opened by one of you with a flourish and the press is there to take photos but what happens is it means less support of the student often. Yo-yo means you are on your own, to the student, and fo-fo when they come back and say "can I have a bit of support" is "f-off and find out for yourself". That shows the cynicism that has gone with the cutting of tuition time. The cutting of tuition time has come from the drive to increase numbers and David Gibson's core point, the main point, the one with which we would agree, the cutting of core funding.

Mr Pollard

  70. Last week I asked the Secretary of State about plumbers and carpenters and all of that because in our area you cannot get them. You can get graduates but you cannot get plumbers and carpenters and if your toilet is blocked the person you need definitely is a plumber. We need to improve the image, do we not, to make those core skills sexy? It is all right if you are doing or anything like that but if you are a plumber you are not quite one of us. How do we get that right because I think that is where the sector needs to be? Artisans in the Middle Ages were the key people, the guilds came from that, but nowadays it is not considered in quite the same way. How do we get round that?
  (Mr Mackney) I have just moved to London and my experience is that plumbers are part of the elite actually. I am amused that in the adult basic skills test of whether you have difficulty with functional literacy it is whether you can find a plumber in the Yellow Pages or Thomson's Directory. I can do that but whether I can actually get someone to do the job is a different question.

Mr Shaw

  71. Or afford him.
  (Mr Mackney) To show respect to those who cannot do that, they can often do a bit of the job themselves and can usually find a mate who can assist them. When we talk about adult basic skills we need to show respect to the students we are talking about. What happened with plumbing? I was a regional official in the West Midlands and I can take you to the colleges where the plumbing lecturers were made redundant. It relates to the last process. Plumbing was expensive, the lecturers were top of the scale, they were not, both with us and the employers, always the easiest people to deal with, they were got rid of, the space was taken and developed often—I can take you to one—where the learning resource centre went in. I am not making a cheap point, I am trying to say what was wrong with a funding approach which just focussed on numbers. I think it is critical that we rediscover that technical agenda. Support staff similarly lost jobs through that process and we lost an awful lot of skilled people.
  (Ms McAnea) I think particularly for some of the vocational courses and the skills based courses, which rely heavily on technical support staff to provide the level of learning, one of the main problems we have there is low pay and that is particularly why some of the major recruitment areas are in both the IT, engineering and some of the skills based courses because, for example, the average pay of a technician in FE is just over £13,000, about £13,500. I know that certainly in London you would not expect to get a plumber to come to work as a technician on that kind of level and I suspect it is exactly the same outside London as well, you will not get people who will give up being skilled trades people to come and take a job in a college at those levels of pay. That is an absolute fact, that is the level of pay for technicians in colleges. I am sure it is exactly the same for people who want to move into the lecturing side as well.

Jeff Ennis

  72. Going back to low staff morale, and I think most Members of the Committee would accept that there is low staff morale in FE colleges, certainly in my area, you have obviously majored on the fact that a lot of that is based around pay and conditions and the fact that we have differential pay rates in colleges, etc. How important is the issue of democratic deficit in terms of staff morale because I guess if we had a representative from a local authority here they would be saying "we have a democratic deficit in terms of local education rates on the LSCs"? Is that a staff morale issue or just a point of principle?
  (Ms McAnea) After incorporation there was a general feeling that the governors became less accessible than they had been previously, that is absolutely true. Although both UNISON and NATFHE have tried very hard to encourage staff governors to take up positions on the board of governors, and we run an annual joint conference for staff governors in FE, it has not been as successful as we would like. Certainly I know from the support staff side it has not been as successful as we would like. We know that many support staff do not take up positions as staff governors. They do not have to have a support staff governor on the board of governors and I think that has been an issue. It is much wider than that and I think you have touched on some of the main reasons for low staff morale. One of them is levels of pay, they are incredibly low. FE is one of the lowest paying sectors. That, and HE as well, for support staff is the lowest paying sector in the education area and probably is among the lowest paid in the public sector as well. I can give you a couple of figures. I mentioned the learning support staff: over 60 per cent of support staff in FE earn less than £13,000 a year and about 20 per cent earn less than £10,000 a year. Those are appalling figures by anyone standards, although it is hard to give absolute comparisons between them and other sectors because unlike most of the teaching staff—it is not quite the same in FE—there are no national grades. There is a national pay spine but no national grades. That is the same in local government, they review the national pay spine in local government. It is hard to do an exact comparison but from the information we have looking at the new Earnings Survey figures for local government salaries the pay for FE sector support staff jobs is between 15 and 20 per cent behind comparable jobs in local government. That is particularly true for receptionists, secretarial and administrative type grades where people are earning about 15 to 20 per cent more in local government and that is not taking account of the private sector, which I know is another major competitor for some of these staff in some areas.
  (Mr Mackney) Can I make two points on that. First, from the voice of the practitioner, it is not just that some Learning and Skills Councils contain "nobody from the college." In all of the Learning and Skills Councils across the whole country, and we are talking about a £6 billion quango, less than one per cent of those, except for the principals, are college workers. Less than one per cent. Who brought the bad news about the scandals and so on, who got it out? It did actually come from UNISON and NATFHE members saying "something is going wrong here". There are times when the true friend is the one who brings you the news you do not necessarily want to hear. I would like to talk about pay, do you want me to do that now or will there be another question, that was the second thing?

  Chairman: I do not want to deprive Members. We will keep coming back to pay.

Mr Turner

  73. We have heard a lot of evidence about the shortage of teachers and support staff. This cannot possibly do anything but reduce the quality of what is on offer, can it?
  (Ms McAnea) No is the simple answer. I think that some of the interesting facts in this are that not only is there a shortage of teaching in some of the key learning support staff but also professional staff and some other support staff jobs where colleges have experienced difficulty in recruiting. If you look at the turnover figures, the average turnover is 20 per cent and by any standard that is not a healthy turnover, that is one in five of the staff in a year are leaving. That must cost colleges increased money in recruiting for these jobs, advertising for these jobs. It must disrupt the way the colleges are run and it must have an impact, I would say, on the experiences of the students in those colleges if there is a continual turnover of that level.
  (Mr Mackney) If you are running a college, and I know it from running a centre rather than a college and in your constituency the people who have been running the college have run into all kinds of problems, the major difficulty is there is not enough money coming in to do the job. So what do they do? They reach for various methods of reducing the staffing costs. There is a two page summary of how this has worked in terms of part-time teachers. There is nothing wrong with working part-time but it is the nature of the relationship. It is a false economy to casualise staffing if in the end that works through to poor achievement rates and poor retention rates for people who are usually taking their second or third chance and who may be put off forever.

  74. It is not just casualisation, is it? If you have not got the staff or you are having to scratch around to find the staff to teach who may not be qualified in the subjects they are teaching, or are not as highly qualified as you want, that cannot do anything but deliver a poor quality to the student.
  (Mr Mackney) Yes, you are absolutely right, which is why we took the position that every student should have the right to an appropriately qualified lecturer for every class, but that is not what happens in further education.

  75. What do you think is the extent of the problem? How many students are not getting what they deserve from the sector because of staffing problems?
  (Mr Mackney) I think the extent is massive. Hopefully it is on the turn. I do not know the figures because, as I have said before, staffing statistics do not appear to be anybody's job to collect. Ask people from the LSC or ministers who collects them, I would like to know. Nobody knows exactly how many part-time staff are qualified. I am not attacking the staff, I hasten to add. What we do know is that they are substantially less qualified than the full-time staff who went out at the end of the 1990s because they were expensive. Possibly anything up to 50 per cent may not have appropriate teaching qualifications. We know from the FEFC inspection reports that classes taught by part-time staff—I will break down part-time staff in a minute—got one grade lower on a five point scale. If you take out the fractional, that is people established on, say, 0.5 of a full-time post, take out the established part-time staff and just deal with the agency staff, those who come in, do the lessons and go, ie are not part of the community of the college, and I think you will find that figure is even more than one grade lower because the evidence is the fractional staff's grades are much the same as the full-time staff. If I am using jargon on fractional and full-time I will explain. De-casualisation and re-investment in staff and re-professionalisation—we discovered this in HE as well—are critical to improving the students' experience, improving retention and improving achievement.

  76. You have referred to a massive failure to deliver the quality that the students deserve, how should that be identified in view of the criticism of the inspection regimes that we have heard from earlier witnesses today?
  (Mr Mackney) I think the problem with the inspection regimes is that colleges serve so many different masters, if that is the word, or mistresses—that has a different connotation, does it not—and because of their responsiveness they have been involved in so many things and joined-up thinking in Government has not caught up with what is being done. It might be something to do with joined-up thinking not catching up with regional development as well, a theme that came up earlier, because most of the things do relate to regeneration, etc., etc. The problem we face is a bit like Mussolini's air force: they produced enough planes to hit Mussolini's targets but when they came to invade Albania they found only two-thirds of them worked. What happened with students was people got the numbers in and hit those targets but did not deal with the processes. This was my very point at the beginning: targets were set, money was put in but did not look at the processes, the student and staff experience in the middle. The other factor that I am aware because of the time we may not get to which could affect this is on turnover. In twenty per cent of colleges last year 20 per cent of full-time staff left and in the end that is because you have to explain to your family why it is you are not going down the road for a job that is £6,000 more and which is probably a bit easier if it is sixth form work as opposed to FE work where the students are not coming with a myriad of problems over education, which is what FE has been so brilliant at putting right. If we do not address the question of pay, and in the end I think that will have to mean national pay scales which bind every college otherwise every college will continue to bench mark to the lowest common denominator, and if we do not get some order into that system then the quality teachers and the quality support staff are going to go. Last year 30 per cent of colleges did not give a pay rise; the year before 30 per cent did not give a pay rise. There is no other part of the public sector where the workers are taking that kind of battering.

Mr Chaytor

  77. Can I come back to the question of funding and link it into the mission for further education colleges and pick up on Chris Hughes' phrase about mission drift. For example, I can see that in the future sixth form colleges have got a clear mission and well established tertiary colleges have got a mission, but is it not inevitable under the new funding system that the general further education college is facing a very difficult future? Is it not inevitable that there are going to be closures and mergers? This is referred to specifically by the LSC in its latest circular. What future do you see for the general FE college?
  (Mr Mackney) I am very concerned that people look at league tables and they find all the sixth form colleges are doing well, all the colleges in Hampshire are doing well, and we know quite a lot of independent school students who go into colleges are post-16 and so on, and do not look at value added by the general FE colleges. I am concerned that there is something in British society that puts us on three tracks redeveloping the 1944 Education Act and ending up with tertiary moderns as general FE colleges.

  78. I can see that but it is not just a question of league tables, it is a question of the basics of the funding system that are going to work against the general FE college and the whole question of a new focus on retention.
  (Mr Mackney) I am in danger of getting into the arcane realms of funding methodology which were mentioned before. I notice that the algebraic formula has about ten fewer items than the 35 item formula that we had before. Rather than deal with it in terms of the funding methodology I would like to deal with it in terms of the problem it will be for parents of students. If you have a child or if you are choosing as a 16 year old where to go, I am still not convinced. I think it is better that you go to an institution where you are able to make changes and have a wide range of choices rather than a specialist institution or an academic institution. I am very concerned about re-building the academic/vocational divide. I think one of the major achievements of the general FE college was that it was going towards meeting the needs of employers. Basically we have got to raise the general level of education for millions of people, a bit like the 19th Century was elementary education extended, the 20th Century was secondary education and we are now into mass tertiary and higher education. I think dividing people up into technical and academic is dangerous unless there is close co-operation.

  79. I can see that, but is it not a fact that if you look at the pattern of colleges across the country there is still too much competition between general FE colleges who are not entirely clear on the direction in which they are going and would not a programme of closures and mergers then release additional monies to them which may well be able to deal with the problems of staffing recruitment and conditions of service that you mentioned?
  (Mr Mackney) I do not think that would be dealt with because if you look at the overall figures of how much money is available, plus the fact that the core funding is declining per student four per cent over the next year, if you look at the overall national figures and compare them with the money available to school sixth forms, clearly there is a big disparity. It is £1,000 for a three A level option, £3,500 in schools and £2,500 in FE colleges, for example. If you are asking is there a lack of direction, I think we are all working hard to work out what the new knowledge economy means in terms of direction. The fact is that some things are very clear, such as I think we have lost in mission drift incidentally the technical side and there is something in the British psyche which means we tend to disrespect plumbers, engineers and so on which you do not get in Germany and France where there is a high level of respect, and I am not convinced that great sums of money or sufficient sums of money will be released by closing some institutions and merging.

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