August 29, 2008

A high price to pay for failing a form-filling test...

People often say, "It's not the money, it's the principle", without really meaning it. In fact, they generally mean the opposite. But the further education college where I teach has recently put me in the unusual position of being able to make this claim with absolute sincerity.

Earlier this year, after protracted wrangling with the University and College Union (UCU), the college management finally agreed to allow suitably qualified lecturers to move up to the top of the pay scale – Spine Point 41, for those who follow these things. But there was a catch. The pay award was discretionary. Only those lecturers who could demonstrate their eligibility would receive the award. And the way we were required to demonstrate eligibility was... to fill in a form.

Like most teachers and lecturers, in the last few years I have had to fill in an ever-thickening blizzard of forms. Forms to enrol students; forms to monitor students' progress (complete with "Smart" targets); forms to record achievement and retention data; survey forms and questionnaires galore, not to mention the Ucas forms I help students fill in – and now a brand-new four-page form to demonstrate that I merit a pay award which, considering that I have worked at the institution for 18 years, I might reasonably expect should be granted as of right.

It is often said, dismissively, that forms are merely hoops to jump through. This is perhaps truer than is realised. Making someone jump through a hoop is a graphic image of exercising power. Forms demand time, effort and concentration – and there are penalties for getting them wrong. It is rare in educational institutions for power to be exercised in its cruder forms; those at the top of the hierarchy do not usually harangue, abuse or bully the toilers at the chalk face. But making us fill in forms is a subtler exercise in power. The form-filler is nearly always acting under duress, and is often, as in this case, a supplicant.

As must already be apparent, on this occasion my form-filling skills were adjudged deficient – along with some 30 of my colleagues. My form failed on two counts: using IT skills in my teaching, and enhancing students' educational experiences. Swallowing my outrage, I lodged an appeal (this necessitated filling in another form, naturally), and in due course was brought face-to-face with two stern-faced stooges who proceeded to grill me as if I had attempted to file a false insurance claim.

Staunchly supported by a union representative, I pointed out that I had used IT in a variety of ways, as detailed on my form, including use of the college electronic system blackboard. But the fact that I had not posted a course outline (even though it was nowhere stipulated on the form that this was the only admissible kind of IT use) counted against me. On the enhancing learning point, my form stated that I'd arranged theatre trips for students – but owing to a deficiency of imbecilic literal-mindedness, I had omitted to explain exactly how literature students who were studying King Lear might benefit from a trip to the theatre to see King Lear. At the hearing I duly spelt this out – only to be told that new evidence was inadmissible as it was not included on the original form.

So my appeal was turned down – although I am allowed to fill out another form to reapply next year. At the end of the hearing, one of the stooges unbent sufficiently to reassure me that the college did indeed appreciate my work, but that the application for the pay award was "form-driven". At the time I was too gobsmacked to reply. But the only appropriate response would have been: "Well, it shouldn't be form-driven, should it?" If a form does not sufficiently demonstrate the applicant's eligibility, then they should be allowed to re-fill it until it does (provided they don't write lies on it). Assuming, that is, that the college is serious about giving the pay award to all the lecturers who deserve it.

Management must have known when they made it a form-driven process that there would be some lecturers who'd fail to make it through that particular hoop – leading to the invidious consequence of lecturers with the same or superior qualifications, capabilities and length of service as their colleagues being paid at a lesser rate (around £2,000 a year pro rata) for doing the same job. It's evident that this is not the way to produce a loyal or contented workforce. On the other hand, it does save money.

Of course, I am not saying that the college is more interested in saving money than in the principle of the thing. But if that were the plan, a form-driven process would be a neat way to accomplish it, wouldn't it?

Useful things, forms.

The writer is a lecturer at Westminster Kingsway College.


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