The Education (Wales) Bill has navigated three of its four stages in the Assembly and should become law around Easter 2014. But a couple of matters need to be resolved.
ColegauCymru broadly welcomed the proposal to establish a registration body for the education workforce which would expand and develop the role of the General Teaching Council for Wales (GTCW) which currently only registers teachers working in maintained schools in Wales. The new Education Workforce Council (EWC) (an attempt to change its name to ‘Education Professionals Council’ was lost in a plenary session in the Assembly) would require the registration of school learning support workers, FE teachers and FE learning support workers. It would help professionalise the education workforce. And staff covered by the legislation who are not registered – or refuse to register – may lose the right to practise.
Aims of the Council
The aims of the EWC, set out in the Bill, are ‘to contribute to improving the standards of teaching and the quality of learning in Wales’ and ‘to maintain and improve standards of professional conduct amongst teachers and others in the education workforce who support teaching and learning’.
The new body will provide advice to those who are registered; promote the careers of the education workforce; establish and maintain a register; review and revise the code of conduct and practice; hold and provide information; and – the one responsibility bound to attract public attention – investigate unacceptable professional conduct and incompetence.
One key matter must urgently be resolved. Who will pay the annual registration fees? Under the Bill, Welsh Ministers decide on the level of fees and the Council is able to charge and recover fees. FE colleges will have the power to deduct fees from salaries and pay those fees to the Council.
At present the registration fee for the GTCW is £45. To assist towards this, the Welsh Government pays an additional £33 to each schoolteacher. School teachers are able to claim tax relief on the remaining £12. It would not be acceptable for school teachers to receive a subsidy but not those working in further education.
Another key point is that the level of fee must take account of the salaries of staff. It would be unfair to charge FE learning support workers and part-time staff the same level of fee as say full-time FE lecturers and FE managers.
In a tough financial climate, colleges would not wish to take on the costs (a £45 fee covering around 10,000 staff could cost almost £½m per year; if reduced to £33 the figure is close to £⅓m). At a time of financial stringency any increase in costs could only be found by cutting back on jobs. It would be ironic indeed if the funding of a body seeking to improve quality led to job losses.
The Welsh Government would be reluctant to find additional funding for FE staff. Even if it could, any financial support for staff in membership of the EWC would inevitably be top sliced from the FE budget – in effect a cut to college funding.
FE staff required to register with the EWC could be asked to pay the full amount. This is not likely to find favour with the trade unions who argue that to make members pay for something which is compulsory is unfair especially as pay increases have fallen behind inflation. In England, a union-led boycott of the Institute for Learning played into the Coalition Government’s hands. The English Minister stopped compulsory registration. The unions lost the opportunity for a professional body which they had wanted for many years.
So we have a situation where all sides want the EWC but no-one is willing to put their hands in their pockets to pay for it. Early talks must be held between the various parties to sort out the cost of the new body, the level of its membership fees and crucially who is going to pay.
Schedule 1 of the Bill states that there should be 14 members appointed by Welsh Ministers and that the majority of members of the Council should be registered or recently registered persons. Schoolteachers would therefore have an inbuilt majority as FE lecturers and support staff are not yet able to register. The membership of the Council must fully reflect all categories of staff now required to register.
Who is covered?
Who exactly is required to register? In FE, lecturers are employed in a variety of ways. Colleges make use of occasional lecturers, brought in, for example, from law or accountancy firms who may give only a few lectures every year.
Which posts are included under ‘FE learning support workers’? It might be argued that everyone employed in a college supports learning. The Bill uses words such as ‘enabling or assisting a learner’, ‘supporting a learner’s independence, achievement or progression’ or ‘supporting a person who is providing education’. This last definition is wide enough to encompass financial staff (ensuring salaries are paid); the senior management team (planning the college curriculum); as well as personnel staff (ensuring staff policies are in place). An early resolution of who is in and who is out is vital.
The EWC has the potential to benefit considerably the FE education workforce and by so doing improve opportunities for learners. But there are some major issues that need early resolution to ensure the new body gets off to a good start.