Quality against casualisation – two case studies from further education in the South-West

UCU has been saying for years that casualised contracts affect the quality of education. We’ve argued that employers with highly casualised workforces often struggle to ensure that there are guaranteed staff for who areas of provision and that employers struggle to recruit and retain staff, leading to high turnover and neglect of professional development.

For students and learners, this means their lessons may not have enough staff, they may not know from term to term who is teaching them, and that it is impossible to build up proper educational relationships with a fast-changing workforce. For staff on casual contracts, it means the endless anxiety of worrying whether you’ll be employed again and the frustration of working for an employer who shows no commitment to you but expects you to deliver ‘excellence’ day in day out. That’s why UCU argues constantly for transferring casualised staff onto secure contracts. It’s in everyone’s interests.

Well, it seems that at least some Ofsted inspectors may be starting to agree with us. UCU, like other teaching unions, is highly critical of Ofsted, but it does seem that inspection teams in the South-West may have combined, if unintentionally, with UCU campaigning to persuade two colleges to reduce the casualisation of their workforces. City of Bristol College and Wiltshire College both received critical Ofsted reports over the course of 2013 and 2014 and in both cases, the quality of teaching was under the spotlight.

City of Bristol College is a significant employer of staff on zero hours contracts, while Wiltshire College employed some staff on zero hours contracts and over 30% of its teaching was delivered by agency workers. In the case of Wiltshire College, Ofsted, which shies away from contractual matters, seemed to come close to addressing casualisation directly. In its report from March 2014, Ofsted notes that ‘over recent years, the lack of stability in a number of teaching teams due to staff turnover and some inadequate cover arrangements has contributed to students’ below average achievement’. Similarly, in its October 2013 report into City of Bristol College, Ofsted noted that there was ‘significant variation in the quality of teaching within and between faculties and subject areas’, together with insufficient attention to planning to meet the needs of individual learners, while assessment and feedback to students was poor.

Both colleges have put in place plans to overhaul their teaching since and interestingly, both have responded positively to UCU calls to address casualisation. City of Bristol has reached an agreement with UCU to end entirely the use of zero hours contracts and to replace them with fractional established contracts. Wiltshire College has similarly agreed to end its use of agency staff and reduce the number of staff on part-time and variable hours contracts.

What’s the ‘learning point’ here? In one sense, it’s simple and obvious. We are right about the connection between casualisation and the threat to quality and other people are only just beginning to cotton on. Professional, committed staff who are put onto casualised contracts are often not given the resources or the time that they need. That’s why this is the time for UCU and its branches to  turn up the heat on our employers.

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