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Coping with endless change: the impact on teaching staff in the Learning and Skills sector.

Sheila Edward, Frank Coffield, Richard Steer
(Institute of Education, University of London)

Maggie Gregson
(University of Sunderland)

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Glamorgan, 14-17 September 2005

Abstract

This paper explores the range of reactions to policy changes within the post-16 sector from tutors and managers in our 24 learning sites, in colleges, adult community education and workplaces. The analysis takes account of the diversity within the group: managers and practitioners; college-based and community-based staff; new entrants to the profession and those with decades of experience; subject or vocational tutors and those trained primarily to improve literacy and numeracy.

The last three to four years have seen rapid growth in college, community and work-based provision, accompanied by changes in funding arrangements, new targets and increased accountability requirements. In adult basic skills education, for example, the drive to meet targets and to maximise numbers taking national literacy and numeracy tests has brought in many new staff, while experienced staff find that their jobs have changed considerably. Whereas some staff are enthusiastic about new areas of activity, others have raised concerns about the needs of their traditional client groups. Managers are highly aware of the need to meet targets, but tutors vary, not only in levels of awareness of targets, but also in responses to them and in willingness to allow them to drive their classroom practice. The paper raises wider questions about the management of change and about the capacity of professionals to embrace, absorb, comply with, resist and, occasionally, subvert imposed change.

Background

Few would dispute that the learning and skills sector is in flux at present: but how much has it really changed for the teaching staff? The last four years have seen considerable structural change in the sector: other papers in the seminar, and our first research report (Hodgson et al., 2005) and journal article (Coffield et al., 2005) describe some of the policy changes. These include the establishment and development of the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), local LSCs and the Skills for Life initiative, encompassing not only new opportunities for learners to acquire qualifications, but also new qualifications for those who teach them. Lumby and Foskett (2005), however, caution against equating evidence of changes with evidence of change:

"Changing the way things are done ... does not necessarily change either the ultimate outputs of the system or the underlying principles that characterize the sector. These principles lie in the cultural and professional values and the societal expectations that underpin the system at the macro-scale." (Lumby and Foskett, 2005:27)

Newman’s (2001) analysis of the dynamics of institutional change alerts us to the tensions generated by conflicting policies. In organisations developing an open systems model, for example, in order to encourage flexibility, expansion and adaptation, ‘the fluidity of the open systems model is constrained by demands for accountability which pull it back towards hierarchy, and by requirements for funding support from the state or from European bodies which exert pulls towards the rational goal model’ (Newman, 2001:38). Staff working in such institutions find themselves meeting conflicting demands and trying to reconcile these demands with their own cultural and professional values, and with their own ideas of what is important in the job they do.

The overall aim of our project is to investigate the impact of policy on practice: in this paper at the midpoint of the project, we are not yet able fully to assess that impact, but simply to present the perceptions of change as described by those whose behaviour policy is seeking to change. In this paper, after introducing the project and the staff interviewed for it, will consider the sources of change; changes in the learners; and finally the nature of changes which affect staff in our learning sites, and how those working closest to the learners are coping with the pace of change.

Focus and methods of the project

Our 39-month project draws on the perceptions of many participants in the LSS. Figure 1 demonstrates the areas of our investigation, with the bold type showing what is in sharpest focus at this mid-way stage of the work. The 24 learning sites encompass four further education (FE) colleges, two in the North East and two in London, in each of which we have completed three (towards a planned total of five) visits to staff and students working on one level 1 and one level 2 course. One manager, one tutor and six students were interviewed on each occasion. The eight adult and community learning sites and the eight work-based learning sites are also equally divided between North and South: these have been visited twice, and wherever possible, we have interviewed at least one tutor, a manager and six students in each. In the work-based learning sites, we have, where appropriate, exceeded this minimum, because to understand the provision there, it has been helpful to talk not only to tutors and those who manage them, but also to learners’ line managers, training managers and union learning representatives. The interviews with staff were on average about 40 minutes long, with assurances of confidentiality for individuals and their organisations, and took place between May 2004 and June 2005.

Figure 1: Levels of the research

Participants: tutors and managers

Figure 2 shows how our 115 staff interviews on the learning sites have involved 94 different people so far. Since the course is the focus of our visit, we have encountered quite a few changes in personnel, which is itself a symptom of a changing environment. Only in one of the four FE colleges have we been able to interview the same two staff for both courses on all three visits; and in only 5 of the 16 ACL and WBL sites have we found the same manager and tutor on both our visits to date.

Figure 2: Staff interviews in the 24 learning sites, May 2004 – June 2005

Learning sites

Tutors interviewed

Managers interviewed

**Total interviews

Colleges (3 visits)

14

13

49

ACL sites(2 visits)

12

15

30

WBL sites(2 visits)

14

26*

36

TOTAL

40

54

115

* This figure includes training managers, line managers, provider managers in FE colleges and the private/ voluntary sector and union learning representatives: anyone involved in the management of WBL, but not directly involved in tutoring.

** Several staff were interviewed on two or three successive visits, and, on a few occasions, two or more staff were interviewed together. The figure in this column represents the total of interview events.

We have also encountered role changes: for example, a part-time tutor interviewed in 2004 had become a full-time course leader by 2005, and one of our work-based tutors has now become a manager. With another two visits to make to all sites over the next 12 months, further changes are expected. While as ‘real world researchers’, we could not have planned for, or avoided, this variety and flux, the research benefits from both the continuity on the ‘stable’ sites, and the discontinuity on the others. For example, tracking through the implementation of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) from Summer 2004, when it was in a pilot phase, to Summer 2005, when it was fully embedded as a course management tool, was easier in a stable site; while elsewhere, we found newly-appointed managers commenting on the situations they had inherited in ways which put our previous interview with outgoing managers into a fresh perspective and deepened our understanding of the culture of the organisation and of the course team. High staff turnover and the difficulties of recruitment and retention of good quality teachers are recurrent themes in our college and community sites, and we accept that the perspectives of those who have chosen not to ‘cope with change’, by leaving the sector, are not fully represented in our data.

We were also lucky to encounter a broad range of experience among staff interviewed. Tutors, for example included a few with over 30 years’ experience in the sector, but also some in their first year of practice, still adjusting to the environment and working towards teaching qualifications. Differences in perspective were particularly noticeable amongst Basic Skills tutors, where new entrants to the profession had no experience of practice before the advent of Skills for Life. There are clear parallels here with the evaluation of the impact of the National Curriculum in the Primary Assessment Curriculum and Experience project, which found that ‘younger and newer teachers were more likely to have been socialised into instrumental concerns and to have internalized goals closely related to the National Curriculum’ (Pollard et al., 1994:111). We found experienced practitioners who expressed anxiety about the extent to which some new tutors relied upon workbook materials, almost as a substitute for pedagogy, simply handing learners workbooks, instead of designing imaginative learning activities.

While they were positive about many aspects of the Basic Skills Strategy, and many, although not all, had chosen to add the new level 4 qualification to their often extensive collections of prior qualifications in this field, long-serving staff were most likely to raise doubts about the adequacy of the Basic Skills level 4 qualification as a preparation for teaching. In a few settings, managers and experienced tutors were coping with the consequences of this change by devising ways of mentoring and supporting recently qualified staff, to help them broaden their expertise with learners at all levels. Although many of them were enthusiastic about the new opportunities and funding for level 1 and level 2 learners, long-serving staff were also more likely to point to the shortcomings of the level 2 Literacy National Test which does not test writing. They were also concerned about meeting the needs of learners working at Entry level 1 and 2, who were unlikely to be able to progress rapidly to levels where they would attract funding.

The perceived source of change

The formation of the LSC may be the largest recent change in the sector, but many tutors had little direct contact with it or the local LSCs, and little to say in response to our question about its role. One FE tutor commented wearily:

"I suppose it’s another change. There seem to be many, many changes in FE, many, many changes in names ... I see this primarily as a funding body and so they call the shots." (D2T2/1)

Even programme managers said they had little or no personal contact, although they knew that senior managers might have discussions with LSC officials, and interviewees in one college mentioned that a representative of the local LSC had given a talk to a wider range of staff there. In ACL settings, staff were more likely to have been in touch with the LSC about their targets and funding, and to attribute the changes, both positive and negative, in their area of work to the national Skills for Life initiative. In colleges, however, where planned change might be accompanied by the unplanned consequences of staff changes at senior management level and difficult staff recruitment and retention at tutor level, the source of any particular change could be harder to ascertain:

"The management will tell you that ... it comes from outside, because the Government wants us to do things this way and the funding this way. So you don’t know who to blame for the changes ..." (D2T1/2)

For some staff, knowing who might blame you for failing to implement changes appropriately was more important that knowing who was to blame for imposing them. One manager, recently appointed to a college, highlighted a climate of fear of LSC and of OFSTED in this setting, noting that

"They’re seen as working together ... because the OFSTED report then ... gets used by the LSC to beat us with" (C2M1/3)

Coping with a changing client group: the learners

ACL tutors were generally positive about the Skills for Life initiative, with the explosion of funding for basic skills and the opportunities that provided to give a second chance to adult learners without a level 2 qualification. As noted above, however, we found widespread concern that the needs of learners at lower levels should not be neglected. Some of our ACL managers had developed a ‘balancing act’ – embracing the new funding to meet their targets for ‘quick-fix’ learners wanting level 1 or level 2 qualifications, in order to be able to afford to continue to offer support to entry level learners for whom generous funding was not available. Centres offering drop-in facilities, whereby learners at all levels could be supported simultaneously, were most anxious about being able to maintain standards of service to all learners. One manager, facing huge cuts in courses with embedded basic skills, had sought to rationalise provision by streaming, allocating to specific levels classes which were previously open to all. While having a narrower range of learners in their class would undoubtedly make the tutors’ task easier, she noted that tutors were very uncomfortable about the change and loss of flexibility which streaming would bring:

"I know a lot of the tutors are really worried, because they have learners in their class who will be moving. ... I think the impact could be quite profound. ... A lot of these people ... have taken a huge leap to come to learn, and that it is going to change again, will rock many people, I am sure. And I know that is what gives a lot of my tutors real problems, real problems, conscience problems, because we don’t want to make it unstable. We don’t want this to happen.’ (IM1/2)

FE colleges, too, had seen changes in their client groups. Increased emphasis on widening participation had brought expansion, but also new difficulties of coping with challenging behaviour in the classroom from students who, after an unsuccessful school career, were often unconfident, unfocused, disruptive or weighed down by difficult home circumstances. Many described the challenges of dealing with increasing numbers of level 1 and level 2 learners who needed a different approach in the classroom from that required for more motivated level 3 or 4 students. A level 1 tutor who enjoyed the challenge explained why it was actually harder:

"With the level 3s, you go in and you can tell them what is expected, what the outcomes are, and they have got it, the majority. You can’t do that with the level 1s. You have to almost go round and tell them individually and from different angles. For some you have to write it down, for some you have to almost act it out; others, you have to be really specific with the way you speak, so that they have understood it; others, you have got to use examples from their own cultures so that they can understand what you are talking about." (C1T1/3)

This setting had also seen an increase in learners with ESOL needs, exacerbating the challenges in the classroom. Although she stressed how much she enjoyed teaching the group, the same tutor confessed:

"There are weeks when I am desperate to have someone else in the room with me, supporting the sessions." (C1T1/3)

Another FE tutor, who had taught at higher levels, but was new to teaching level 2 when first interviewed, described how she was having to put more effort into her planning, read more and come up with new ideas for engaging and retaining the interest of a challenging level 2 group. Six months later, on our return visit, however, she had become a champion of her ‘difficult’ learners and was defending them in discussions with colleagues who were less enthusiastic about teaching them. But even staff who enjoyed the challenge of teaching demanding groups noted that trying to retain learners who were drifting away from level 1 or level 2 courses - because of other pressures in their lives, or simply because of fear of failure – could use up a disproportionate amount of their time and energy. Tutors would rather have spent this time and energy improving the learning experience of those who did attend.

Coping with changes affecting staff

In our visits to learning sites last year, we asked participants to describe how changes were affecting their practice. Our purpose here is not to catalogue all their responses: we know that the list is still growing, and that there will be more to report by the end of the project in 2007. To set the scene, however, we offer two examples, the first from FE, reviewing some of the most frequently mentioned aspects of change which staff in FE colleges identified; and the second, from ACL sites, which focuses on a narrower spectrum of change, but explores in more detail how ACL staff said they coped with it.

1: Change in the FE context

Tutors and managers in FE described coping with endless change from all directions. Examples cited included: changes in the senior management, structure and direction of the organisation; changes in funding; changes of colleagues in the course team; changes in student support, advice and guidance services, and administrative support; changes in the college’s electronic data management and audit systems and requirements for paperwork; changes in the requirements of awarding bodies; changes in targets for retention and achievement; and changes in quality improvement systems within the organisation. Requirements for written evidence of lesson planning and the production and updating of Individual Learning Plans had increased the paperwork. Interviewees also mentioned changing expectations about links with employers: managers were working to improve employer involvement, developing placement and modern apprenticeship schemes and tutors were trying to work flexibly with employers in Employer Training Pilot schemes and the delivery of work-based learning. Some were also alert to changes in the wider environment, as schools sought to develop sixth form provision which might compete with college courses. Boundaries between schools and FE were shifting, as 14-16 year olds were coming into college for some of their school week, and the development of foundation degrees was moving the boundary between FE and HE. Wider changes in 14-19 were foreshadowed throughout the period of our data collection. At a personal level, some of the tutors we met were still completing PGCE FE qualifications, and others, even in mid-career, were completing the new Basic Skills qualification in Literacy and/ or Numeracy. A few were involved in the work of the DfES Standards Unit. Being responsive to the needs of the student body required staff to keep their IT skills up to date, and incorporate them into their teaching. The advent of EMA had heightened the importance of records of student attendance, and even for those who saw EMA as a useful tool to encourage attendance and discipline, it created an additional layer of administrative paperwork.

Underpinning all these changes, staff reported heightened accountability and some were very tired indeed. In another TLRP project with a different focus from our own, the Transforming Learning Cultures in FE team are reaching some worrying conclusions:

‘Over the three years of the project, it is hard to identify major policy or managerial initiatives which have contributed to the improvement of learning in any site. However, we can document numerous examples of such initiatives that have made successful learning less likely. Tutors protect their students from these pressures as far as they can, and this is a major factor in the overwork and stress that many of them display.’ (Colley, 2005).

Hodkinson (2005) describes how ‘tutors struggled to work within this audit and funding straitjacket’ (2005:7). Perhaps surprisingly, our interviewees had little to say about pay and working conditions, although we were aware of disputes and redundancies on some sites visited, and in several, we observed some staff working in very cramped and difficult environments. Facilities and resources fluctuated, some staff reporting improvements and others deterioration of their teaching facilities and inadequate funds. Last, but not least, staff had seen changes in the inspection system, which some welcomed for the emphasis on learning, as opposed to teaching; and colleges’ local arrangements for preparation for inspection had changed to fit the new system.

The list is long, and we know that there is more to come. Learning and Skills - the Agenda for Change (LSC, 2005) is under consideration and Sir Andrew Foster’s report is imminent. Two related questions arise:

The evidence on the first question in our data so far is encouraging: although many staff would relish a period of calm to consolidate, most could also describe changes they were making to their own practice at micro level, in order to improve learning for the groups that they teach. Despite the sheer weight of change listed above, they are still finding room to exercise individual professional judgement in dealing with their learners, and to take responsibility for improving their own practice, either as individuals or with supportive colleagues in course teams. This may be a coping strategy, a way of re-asserting their own sense of professionalism, especially if, as Avis et al. (2002) suggest, they may be feeling a sense of loss of control over the teaching and learning environment.

On the second question, we only have the evidence of those who have remained within the profession, and the high staff turnover in the sector is well documented. Our data so far, however, suggests that those who focus strongly on their commitment to their learners and their needs are more likely to have weathered the storms of change in recent years. Seddon and Angus (1999) show how FE teachers in Australia, although alienated by growing commercialisation in their sector, nevertheless ‘found ways of affirming educational values within the marketised context’ (1999:504). Closer to home, Gleeson, Davies and Wheeler (2004) shed light on how FE professionals are ‘flexing’ and shifting their professional identities to cope in the ‘audit culture.’

In the example which follows here, we look in more detail at ways which community-based basic skills tutors and managers used to cope with change.

2: Coping with change in ACL: an illustrative example

Funding, targets and, unsurprisingly, the Skills for Life initiative figured largely in the responses from ACL tutors and managers. While the Basic Skills curriculum was widely welcomed, tutors were more ambivalent about the associated paperwork, complaining about cumbersome recording systems and the time spent mapping elements of the curriculum on to learners’ Individual Learning Plans and querying the assumptions on which the funding regime was based. One experienced tutor commented on the temptation for tutors simply to teach to the level 2 reading test, adding:

"And I think it is a danger, because then you are seen as successful, because you have got 300 people through the tests, but in actual fact what might be more of an achievement is getting five people from Entry 1 to Entry 2." (GT1/2)

There was frustration too in working within a system which appeared to trivialise the needs of adult learners who had not acquired skills throughout eleven years of schooling:

"I hate this new diagnostic tool ... because it reduces things and it is saying "If you can prove that they did this this time, then they have achieved that aim." But you know that the reality for a lot of these students is that they can do it one day, but ... you need loads and loads of over-learning for them to sustain those bits." (GT1/1)

We learned that some tutors had left, rather than cope with the demands of the changes. Those who remained exhibited a range of coping strategies. A few managers were eager to embrace the new opportunities, targets and the language and spirit of marketing. They looked for large groups of learners, such as local council employees, to process through the level 2 test, and some were even prepared to offer monetary rewards to those who agreed to take the test. A second group of staff were pragmatic, rather than enthusiastic, about the new opportunities: since they had targets to meet for level 2 learners to secure their funding, they also negotiated contracts with local employers to bring in new clients to take short level 2 courses and national tests, but they approached the matter of meeting their targets in a very different spirit. They saw it not as an end in itself, but more as a means to the end of cross-subsidising the entry level learners, enabling them to continue to offer the full service their community needed.

"We have to think about our funding targets first, in order to support the business that we have here." (HM2/2)

This group often expressed concern about learners at lower levels, too, appearing to value their work with needier learners more highly than the more lucrative level 2 work:

"The entry level students seem to have taken a back seat with the target-driven thing and the contractual issues." (FT1/2)

"The numbers that have gone through the National Tests will be used as a medium for how well we are improving our service, and I think it is a bit of an untruth. It is not a true measure of where our strengths lie. I think it is one of the strengths, but I don’t think it is the only one. I think it is a bit heavily weighted on that side." (EM1/2)

A third group comprised tutors who seemed seriously uncomfortable with the targets and pressure to put students through national tests. One described how like-minded colleagues in the team helped her to cope:

"We support each other with the pressure that we get or the stress that we feel, because it goes against the way we were trained. ... We were trained that it was learner-led, and what the student wanted, then we would provide that to the best of our ability, rather than having to get so many people through the exam, having to do this, having to prove that they are making progress. They have to do this, because they have to get funding." (KT2/2)

This example not only illustrates the range of approaches to coping with change, but also points to tensions inherent in policy. How easy is it to put the learners’ needs at the heart of what you do, and also, at the same time, maximise funding in order to be able to keep the service afloat? We did find evidence of the consequences of missing targets: one ACL provider described how, the previous year, they had put too much effort and staff time one year into highly successful work-based learning schemes for employees, which had not, however, contributed to their targets. The manager explained:

"We did extremely well, probably more students than I have ever had, but I did not actually reach the amount of money that I had to make." (GM1/2)

As a consequence, in the following year they had suffered a reduced budget, and had struggled to maintain a full service to community learners. It was a mistake they would not repeat. None of our interviewees questioned the effectiveness of targets as a driver toward concentration on certain levels of learner, but many were concerned about the potential negative impact of the policy on both learning and inclusion, and some now saw it was part of their role to mediate that negative impact.

Conclusion

To implement change in any sector or organisation requires staff with the time, capacity, energy and motivation to make it work. Several factors make this a challenge in the learning and skills sector: high staff turnover; a scattered and in some ways balkanised workforce, including many temporary, part-time and agency staff; and the sheer numbers of changes to which staff have to adjust. Longer serving staff left us in no doubt that the sector has changed radically, and that their professions, of FE lecturer or basic skills tutor, are very different from the ones they entered 15 or more years ago. We found many committed tutors in all our learning sites, and much evidence of their determination, resilience and creativity in meeting the needs of a changing population of learners. Commitment to the learners may not, however, be enough to help staff cope with the pressures of further waves of change. They may be defeated by the internal tensions between policies, urging staff to be simultaneously flexible, innovative, collaborative, successful in meeting targets and above all, accountable, or by the tension between the tutors’ own concept of the teaching role and the bureaucratic demands, from many sources, which have become part of that role.

This paper is a draft of work in progress. Please do not quote it without written permission, but we would be delighted to hear from anyone who wishes to discuss, improve or disagree with it.

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This document was added to the Education-Line database on 24 January 2006