From education to employment

Not so much a job, more a way of life

I have worked for thirty-five years in further and adult education (FE/AE), and throughout this entire period I have been what is often called a ‘part-time tutor’. The term is a little misleading. It tends to give the impression that somehow I must somehow have a ‘real’ job which pays my bills, whilst teaching is a pass-time wherein I repair to my classes in the evenings, dispensing my abundant bounty to my students. The truth is somewhat different.

After I initially trained as a teacher, my intention was to get myself a permanent teaching job in adult education. I was an IT tutor as the UK computer revolution began, and certainly in demand. But what I hadn’t bargained for was the employment practices of education providers. All of them, without exception, employed tutors on short-term contracts, often for only ten or twenty weeks, at an hourly rate of pay. A sense of ‘belonging’ to an organisation in the cultural sense was very difficult to come by. It was also very difficult to speak out about inadequacies within the teaching and learning system, because the competitive nature of holding down a contractual job meant it was easy to gain a negative reputation by seeming too outspoken. I learned very quickly that keeping quiet, putting up with short-comings, and not trusting management to put things right, were all part of the ‘system’.

This was back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Since then, only the rhetoric has changed, but none of the problems. Corporate scepticism is endemic amongst part-timers, especially those who have worked as long as I have. I must firmly point out that this is not cynicism! The passion for teaching that part-timers have is not diminished by their negative work experiences. But their sense of identity with their employers certainly is. As government policy changes have affected the work and curriculum, the front-of-house staff have been under constant pressure to show loyalty, selfless commitment and a sense of dedication to the corporate systems that utilise them. Yet this is in the continued light of bad employment practices. A great many education providers still employ teachers on short repeating contracts, or zero-hours systems, and even enforced agency working. For example, one very well-known provider has employed me on repeating ten-week contracts ever since I started working for them in 1986. This laudable organisation doesn’t seem to understand that if a tutor is valuable enough to teach for them all that time, then surely they’re also worth steady employment?

Many aspects of the part-timing system are well-known, but deserve repeating here. Pay rates have not kept up with the passage of time. I once calculated I was still on exactly the same hourly rate I was thirty years ago, when inflation, time factors and increased responsibility were taken into account. Add in the limited hours in a week when one can teach, and it’s easy to see that even if a tutor were capable of working six days a week and every evening, then they would still find themselves with a limited income that cannot improve with time. They may hold QTLS, become a more skilled or ‘effective’ teacher, change or extend their taught areas… it doesn’t change the limited income. Ironically, only by moving into management can many tutors find a better-paid job, and in the process often have to leave the work they love and trained for: teaching.

If learning is a process involving social experience, then it is easy to see what is being learned by part-time tutors. The lesson is that though most providers harangue tutors regularly to ‘be the best they can’ for their learners, they will not provide a reciprocal sense of security and collegiality. They do not create the professional environment where aspiration to innovate or ‘be excellent’ are meaningful. There is no ‘community of practice’ within the FE/AE sector: to have one would mean creating meaningful stability of employment, enabling teachers to have a stake in the organisational frameworks they work within. But in a highly competitive neo-liberal environment, the exploitation of part-time staff for short-term success (employing, haranguing, coercing, threatening and then dumping…) has become the default position. The inevitable response from some teachers has been to protect their individual prospects first, and their collective effectiveness only when this does not conflict with individual need. If the sector seems to stumble reactively from one policy initiative to another, lacking a coherent responsiveness and a sense of identity, with crumbling morale and patchy performance (however you measure it), then I can point to the lack of any solid commitment to the welfare of part-time staff as a key factor in these problems. This has been brought about by a cultural of exploitation, and can only be ameliorated by the elimination of such practices.

During his recent election campaign Jeremy Corby argued that education is not about personal advancement but is a collective good that benefits our society and our economy: we all benefit from a more educated and skilled workforce but need to widen that vision and set out a plan to move towards a National Education Service (NES). This is a worthy aspiration for a sector that has never found its feet as part of a joined-up experience of learning in the UK. But part-and-parcel of any approach to an NES must be a move towards outlawing employment practices that systematically militate against teacher professionalism. Left as it is, the system continues to educate its own front-line staff in a negative experience of what teaching in FE/AE is. If anything like Corbyn’s vision of a NES were ever to come to pass, then it cannot simply meddle with the usual internal workings of curriculum and performance management. This is pointlessly ineffective, when the issue of how we actually treat our tutors, teachers and lecturers, is the key to an education service that truly creates the society we aspire towards.

Meanwhile, I continue with my work in fond hope for the future. With my other part-time colleagues I grumble mildly (or bitterly) at the coffee machine and the photocopier. We have one story we tell each other, and another we tell in staff meetings. Some day a new story will come about, and I hope this will occur before I finally retire. Roll on that day!

Bea Groves is the Honorary National President of Tutor Voices: National Network for Further, Adult, Community and Skills Educators; Former President of the Institute for Learning, and National Ambassador, Workers’ Educational Association

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