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Honour the Deal

May 16, 2017

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Before I get into this properly I feel I need to acknowledge my audience. Most people who read this blog are English language teachers, and for many of these good people, the life of a teacher is a precarious one. Zero-hours and temporary contracts are commonplace, salaries are often pitifully low compared to other professions, holiday pay and maternity leave are frequently non-existent, and pension schemes are equally rare. Nevertheless, expectations from management are, in many cases, disproportionately high, with teachers required to work split shifts or teach at weekends as part of their normal timetable, as well as attending CPD or other training in their own time and often at their own expense. If, for whatever reason (a student complaint, poor class results, whatever) a teacher is judged as performing below a required standard, they face the very real risk of having their contract terminated. If I’ve just described your teaching context, the concept of educational institutions being run by out-of-touch managers who prioritise bottom-line figures and profit margins over quality learning and teaching is a given, to the extent that it probably doesn’t even seem worth writing about. To you, this post may just seem like a big long petulant whine, or, at best, nothing that you can relate to. However, please bear with me.

You see, I happen to have a permanent contract in a Scottish further education college. This means that, compared to most English language teachers around the world, I get really well paid, have fantastic holidays and enjoy a high level of job security. And yet, a recent dispute between Colleges Scotland, the association that represents college managers, and EIS-FELA, the lecturers’ union, means that I’m on strike for a 5th day in the past four weeks, and I’ll be on strike again tomorrow. But why? What on earth would make me and my colleagues sacrifice so many days’ pay and take action that can only damage relations with our managers? Well the thing is, this dispute isn’t about how much we get paid, or how many holidays we have. It’s about other, more important things, related to power, control, equality and trust.

A bit of background is required, and I’ll try to be brief. Between 1993 and 2016, further education (FE) colleges operated as independent bodies. The vast majority of their funding still came from the government, but they weren’t under government control. The union had to negotiate terms and conditions for its members separately, within each individual college. Inevitably, this led to different terms and conditions existing in different colleges. It happened gradually, but over the years, lecturers in some colleges saw their terms and conditions improve, while things gradually got worse in others.

By 2014, the disparities in terms and conditions had become enormous, with an annual salary difference of around £10,000 between the highest- and lowest-paying colleges. The differentials were made more obvious when the government introduced a process of regionalisation, which required colleges to merge with each other. Suddenly, lecturers found themselves working for the same employer and doing the same job, but being paid vastly different amounts. In some cases, pay and conditions within colleges still hasn’t been harmonised. Lecturers share the same staffroom, but get paid different rates and have different terms and conditions.

A couple of years ago, colleges became reclassified as public bodies, increasing their accountability to the Scottish Government, particularly with regard to expenditure. Around the same time the government proposed a return to national bargaining, which would allow EIS-FELA to negotiate pay and conditions with Colleges Scotland on a national level, allowing them to move towards achieving the same terms and conditions across all colleges. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the union was in favour of this, but the managers were less so. In fact, they were reluctant to even accept national bargaining had been introduced – even after it had – and it took a one-day strike from lecturers in March 2016 and some government intervention to get them to agree to any kind of plan that worked towards harmonisation of terms and conditions.

The 2016 deal focused on the equalisation of pay, and aimed to bring all salaries up to the same level as the highest paying college, over a three-year period. Obviously this was very good news for the lecturers in the more poorly paid colleges, who had had a raw deal for such a long time, and it was less good for those in colleges that paid higher salaries. But EIS-FELA members voted overwhelmingly to accept the deal, as the main objective was to bring an end to pay inequality; once this had been established we could negotiate terms and conditions and national bargaining would function as it should.

However, after this deal was signed, nothing happened. The first salary adjustment was due to take place in April this year, and it didn’t. When pressed to explain why this was the case, Colleges Scotland responded that pay harmonisation could only be implemented if other aspects of lecturers’ conditions, such as annual leave and weekly teaching hours, were also addressed. This was not what had been agreed and, following a ballot, EIS-FELA entered into an official dispute with Colleges Scotland. As there was no further movement or indication that the deal would be honoured, another union ballot saw lecturers voting overwhelmingly in favour of strike action.

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Now, strike action is serious, and is generally only something that unions and the workers they represent do as a last resort. It is worth noting that college lecturers in Scotland have been on strike for more days in the past 4 weeks than in the previous 25 years. It is also worth pointing out once again that many lecturers who are in favour of strike action stand to gain very little on an individual level – but this is not about individualism. It’s about a collective sense of professional worth, a feeling that all lecturers who do the same job should be recognised equally for doing it. Furthermore, it is about being able to trust that your managers respect and value what you do, and the need for mutual trust between employers and employees in order to maintain a positive and productive working environment. When repeated calls for the deal to be implemented were ignored, and when the deadline on 1st April 2017 passed without any pay adjustments being made, lecturers felt that this trust had been broken. A deal had been agreed, and managers had refused to honour it.

Since industrial action started 4 weeks ago, relations between lecturers and managers have deteriorated further. Statements on the Colleges Scotland website and quoted in the press repeatedly claim that the 2016 pay deal was inextricably linked to other conditions, and that lecturers are being offered a 9% pay rise but, in addition, they are demanding more holidays and fewer weekly teaching hours. None of this is true. The deal over pay has no conditionality attached to it, other than an acknowledgement that Colleges Scotland would draw up a plan to sort other conditions out soon. The 9% figure is based on some calculation of the average pay increase that lecturers will receive in order to achieve pay equality. But again, this is over a three-year period and is necessary to address the pay inequalities that have existed for so many years. Saying that lecturers want more holidays and fewer teaching hours is also untrue. Everybody knows that college lecturers get lots of holidays – why would we demand more? That would be silly. There is also inequality in the amount of annual leave offered at each college though, and the truth behind the claim is that Colleges Scotland want to harmonise holidays downwards. Lecturers aren’t asking for more holidays, they’re just not keen on losing what they have.

As for teaching hours, it’s the same thing. Lecturers currently teach between 21 and 26 hours per week, depending on what college they work in. College managers want to be able to make all lecturers teach 26 hours per week. For many college lecturers, the prospect of increased weekly teaching remits is a serious concern. The upheaval caused in recent years as a result of regionalisation and new policy implementation has made the FE curriculum more outcomes-based, more attainment-focused, and has also increased the level of performativity in colleges. It is no longer enough to simply teach in a way that allows your students to learn effectively. Large amounts of evidence need to be generated to allow the teaching and learning process to be evaluated by other people. Increased accountability isn’t necessarily a bad thing per se, but it means that non-teaching time is at an absolute premium. Lecturers need time outside the classroom to source or design materials, prepare lessons, mark homework, deliver assessments and provide ongoing support to students on an individual and group level. To any teacher reading this, the need for sufficient prep time is self-evident, but it seems less obvious to college managers.

Ultimately though, whether you agree with the union’s desire for harmonisation to always go in lecturers’ favour, or whether you think that some lecturers should make some sacrifices in the name of equality, this particular debate is irrelevant. The fact is that an agreement has already been reached. Colleges Scotland agreed to implement the equal pay deal. They are now reneging on this deal by claiming that it has to be linked in with other aspects of lecturers’ terms and conditions. If that is the case, why did they agree to the March 2016 deal in the first place? Either they made a massive error of judgement by not realising the financial implications of the deal, which raises questions about their competence, or they signed the deal but had no intention of implementing it, raising questions about their integrity. Either way, this dispute makes Colleges Scotland, and the managers it represents, look pretty bad – incompetent, or devious, or possibly both.

Perhaps it is a fear of looking stupid, then, that is motivating Colleges Scotland to present alternative facts to the public and to try and re-define the debate so it includes annual leave and teaching hours. It is misleading to publicly express disappointment at the union’s unwillingness to negotiate, when a deal has already been negotiated and just needs to be implemented. Not only that, but the Scottish Government says the funding to allow pay to be harmonised has been made available, so Colleges Scotland can’t say that the deal is unaffordable; if the government is footing the bill, managers don’t stand to lose anything, do they?

Well, maybe they do. In that long period when colleges were publicly funded but privately run, senior management teams in individual colleges had a large degree of freedom in how they spent funds. Not only did they set salaries and write job descriptions for their staff, they also had considerable autonomy when it came to spending on other things, and there have been instances in the past where managers have used college funding in ways that have been regarded as, let’s say, questionable (for examples please read here, here, here and here), and more recent stories would suggest that at least some of them are keen to ensure their own interests are well-served, as can be seen here and here. However, returning colleges to the public domain increases the level of scrutiny over how college principals spend funds. Re-introducing national bargaining means that individual colleges no longer have the capacity to force their staff into accepting unpalatable changes to their terms and conditions (I’m not saying all college principals want to do this, just that they had the ability to in the past and they don’t any more). Making colleges national bodies and  nationalising negotiating procedures means a loss of control, therefore a loss of power. Some principals don’t seem to like that.

We are now in a really unpleasant situation, with strike action affecting classes at a crucial stage in the academic year. As well as having to bear the financial burden of going out on strike, lecturers are acutely aware of the impact of industrial action on college students, and the temptation to cross the picket line, or cram more work than usual into non-striking days, will increase if the dispute continues. However, the whole purpose of strike action is to be disruptive. If lecturers withdraw their labour and students manage to complete their courses successfully anyway, not only does this minimise the impact of the industrial action, it also justifies (in managers’ eyes) shaving hours off of existing courses. It may seem paradoxical, but if lecturers’ main responsibility is the delivery of high quality teaching and learning for their students, they must strike, and the more disruptive the strike is the better. The onus is not on lecturers to resolve this dispute; all they want is the implementation of something that has already been agreed. The onus is on managers to honour this deal.

As I said at the beginning of this post, college lecturers are in a far more privileged position than many of our fellow teachers. But we’re not in this position because we have benevolent managers who understand and value the job we do. We are in this position because we have a strong union, and a strong sense of solidarity. We are now taking the opportunity presented by national bargaining to bring about an end to unequal pay. Many of us stand to gain little or nothing from the agreed pay deal. However, if we allow our managers to break this deal, we allow them to do the same again in the future and we can look forward to a gradual erosion of pay and conditions for us, and an erosion of quality for students. Lecturers with permanent contracts in the Scottish FE sector are not in the same precarious position as many teachers who will read this, but we will be if we don’t stay strong and united. Concerns about our own terms and conditions are part of it, but this is more about the sector as a whole. We need to use national bargaining to create a platform that allows us to deliver a high quality curriculum for our learners. Students matter. Prep time matters. Never mind the spin – just honour the deal.

For updates on the progress of the dispute between EIS-FELA and Colleges Scotland, you can visit the EIS-FELA website

Or follow the EIS on Twitter – @EISUnion

Or visit either the Honour the Deal Facebook page or the Students Supporting Lecturers Facebook page

Or try searching for any of these hashtags:

#honourthedeal     #preptimematters     #principlesoverprincipals

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