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Winning better jobs - two case studies from further education in the south west

27 November 2014 | last updated: 22 January 2016

UCU has been saying for years that casualised contracts affect the quality of education. Professional, committed staff who are put onto casualised contracts are often not given the resources or the time that they need. 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.

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.

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 workers employed by a college agency. 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 responded by putting in place plans to overhaul their teaching. Wiltshire College proposed to make job cuts whereupon UCU stepped in to argue that the college should take all teaching back in-house, including transferring agency staff to direct employment. The college eventually agreed to redeploy agency staff onto fractional and variable hours contracts (not zero-hours contracts) wherever possible, increasing direct employment at the college.

City of Bristol college also looked to overhaul their teaching and, under UCU pressure, agreed to move all variable hours lecturers and all zero-hours contracts staff who had been doing regular work for the previous two years onto improved permanent fractional contract posts. The principal has said that in future, casual contracts should only be used for one-off visiting lectures or guest lecturers.

These are difficult times for FE colleges and UCU's job is to fight for every job in the face of cuts. But we also need to fight for better jobs, partly because it's fair and right and partly because we think it's better for the colleges. It seems that other agencies may, belatedly also be recognising this point. That's why this is the time for UCU and its branches to turn up the heat on our employers.