It’s no secret that nowadays it’s becoming increasingly common for people to have to work for free in order to gain employment of any kind. This trend, however, has now extended to teaching at colleges. Education Guardian has recently received correspondence from lecturers at three FE colleges that have resorted to using unpaid tutors to give classes. The question on everyone’s lips is, how widespread has this practice become?
The University and College Union (UCU) has reported that a number of their members have approached them with complaints about the use of unpaid teachers. The UCU has decided to take the matter up with the relevant authorities and employers.
While all school teachers are required to hold a PGCE, there exist three distinct training routes in FE. Of these training routes, the certificate and diploma in lifelong learning are only available to individuals already employed in similar teaching roles. Trainee lecturers in colleges are expected to provide 150 hours of teaching to earn a qualification, which is then awarded based on their performance in the classroom, assessed continuously.
Unfortunately, according to Mary Slater, who educates people wanting to become teachers in a large inner-city college, there are not enough paying jobs to go around. "This year, at least 50% of my students couldn’t get paid jobs, so they’re getting round this requirement by teaching as volunteers instead," she says.
In other words, they are working as unpaid teachers to meet their on-the-job training requirements. Not only that, they are also paying their own fees, which can range from anything between £500 to over £3,000, depending on the level of the course. "Normally an employer would pick up the bill. So they’re not only working for nothing, but paying to work for nothing," says Slater. Next year, the teaching diploma at her college will cost £3,000.
"I can see why this may be OK for the volunteers," says Slater. "If they can’t get paid work, at least they can get the teaching experience that will lead to a qualification. But it means some colleges are getting unpaid teachers. And because of cutbacks in FE, many are not even going to get proper paid jobs when they finish." Currently, those with FE teaching qualifications can’t teach at schools, and the skills they learn aren’t transferable.
Are colleges trying to support aspiring teachers in a tough job market, or are they taking advantage of the situation to boost staffing levels? Are some colleges looking for ways to save money while maintaining teaching hours?
According to Slater, this could be showing symptoms of the latter. She notes that some volunteers at her college are not receiving the proper support or mentoring they require. "Paid staff on teacher training courses are allocated mentors through a formal process so they fare better than those who are there as unpaid volunteers.
"I teach them in a classroom and observe them from a generalist viewpoint, but they need subject-specialist mentoring from the subject department where they are teaching. In many cases, they’re just left to get on with it and used as free labor. They’re not getting the proper training they should. I don’t blame the trainees themselves. I can see why they do it, as for many, there’s no other way to get the in-service qualification."
Slater stated that this has been going on at her college since 2009. "Prior to that, we were strict on who we would take on the course, and they had to have paid, usually part-time, teaching jobs. Now many feel forced to work for free to meet the criteria for qualification. It’s becoming an accepted norm, and that troubles me."
Mike Marshall, also a lecturer, indicated that his college also employs unpaid teachers. "Our college is employing at least two trainee students to deliver a large number of classes unpaid. In one case, the student teacher has replaced a full-time member of staff who emigrated. The college authorities claim they are supporting lecturers in a proper placement, but this isn’t the case. Some have been given so-called extended placements so they’re doing far more hours than they should be. They are being taken advantage of. It’s as simple as that."
Employing unpaid, unqualified teachers could lead to legal consequences, Penny Davies, who also works at a large FE college warns. "They are almost certainly not covered by employer insurance. Some may not have been CRB checked, in which case they should not be in sole charge of classes."
Davies, upon learning that her college used student teachers who were also volunteers, along with a colleague of hers, reported it to the HR department. "We came across instances of three people last year who were actually taking whole classes on their own without a proper attached teacher to supervise them. We then discovered this was happening in two other sections of our college."
According to Davies, HR in their workplace took swift action when informed of the use of unpaid trainee teachers and issued a memo to prohibit the practice. However, she believes that this issue is not unique to their institution and is happening in other colleges as well. Davies urges other instructors to voice their concerns and notify HR or their union if they suspect this practice is taking place. She emphasizes that volunteer work, such as assisting with adult literacy classes, is acceptable as long as there is a paid teacher supervising them. The concern lies with the exploitation of unpaid trainee teachers taking advantage of them to avoid hiring fully paid staff, ultimately undermining the profession and harming job security. Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU union, supports the need for properly supporting and mentoring trainee teachers for their development and students’ education, while also advocating for a national code to protect them against exploitation. The Association of Colleges denies knowledge of unpaid trainees being used and claims to take the training and development of teachers seriously.