EIS FELA member survey – COVID and return to work

The survey was conducted in June 2020 with responses from 1902 EIS FELA members across all 26 Scottish colleges (approximately 40% response rate). Around two-thirds were in full time permanent posts and 82% were main grade lecturers; as with the FELA workload survey in January 2020, less than 3% were in zero hours/temporary contracts.

COVID risk factors

The age range indicted in the survey again highlights the distinct demographic of the FE teaching workforce in comparison to the schools sector and the relatively higher risk for COVID-19. Only 1% of respondents were in their 20s and 57% were over 50, of whom 14% were over 60 and a further 1% over 70.

24% of respondents indicated that they had physical or mental health conditions which put them at additional risk of COVID-19 with 16% indicating that either they or a household member had been shielding.

Transition to home-based working

NJNC agreements set out existing provisions for lecturers to work from home on a limited and flexible basis. Respondents reflected the necessity of home-based working during lockdown and the short notice decision to close colleges but raised a number of concerns about full time home-based working during lockdown and the potential for an extension of home-based working in the longer term through blended learning.

While 97% of respondents indicated that they had home broadband, only 35% had a workspace separated from other areas of their homes. A number of lecturers highlighted the fact that they were working from home alongside spouses and other household members, often sharing equipment and putting additional strain on home internet connections, while simultaneously home-schooling children.

Many indicated that they either had no or inadequate college equipment with several purchasing additional equipment from their own pocket.

A number of lecturers also indicated that while they enjoyed the flexibility of home working, they did not have appropriate space or equipment to do this on a full time basis, resulting in physical issues (particularly back pain), and a number of respondents indicated that home-working was a factor in poor mental health during lockdown.

“I am 'lucky' in the sense that I live alone and have a separate room with a decent computer & chair where I can work. My main issue is that it is impossible to separate work and home life. Cannot stand work being so present in my home life."

"I am not a young lecturer and my IT skills are not great, but that was not a problem before lockdown. However, the college closed suddenly, and I found myself alone at home with few IT skills. I have learned some along the way but the speed and confidence at which I can work in isolation has had an adverse effect on my mental health."

This was particularly the case for the quarter of respondents who had caring responsibilities:

"Personally, the demands of home schooling two children and looking after a 1 year old whilst trying to hold down a full-time job are exhausting. I am working till the early hours most days and at weekends, which is not sustainable long-term. My wife works for the NHS. Colleagues without dependents do not appreciate the demands here (especially demands for meetings/work) and that 'everything should go on as normal’."

"They [management] are making all the right sounds about caring for student and staff mental health and wellbeing but do not actually back it up or provide reassurance to those who can't work from home which in effect places more pressure on individuals to work! They only want to report and trumpet how wonderful it has been for those able to transition to 'remote working'…"

Issues with online and blended delivery

While the vast majority indicated that they used some form of online environment prior to COVID-19 (80% sending emails or information to students and 87% sharing teaching resources electronically), only 57% had set online work tasks and just 13% had provided live online teaching or feedback. The level of online engagement increased during COVID with only 3% of lecturers indicating that they were not involved at all in online learning. 22% of lecturers indicated that they primarily communicated with learners via email with 28% delivering online classes.

Several lecturers cited issues with ICT equipment and a lack of training in online platforms and many were aware that their students were similarly struggling to engage.

"Feeling very overwhelmed with trying to become a computer whizz kid overnight"

Even in areas where lecturers had the skills to deliver online learning, technological issues still interfered:

"In general UHI has good very expertise in online delivery, the main problem has been the instability of internet at both ends (mine & the students) & the inadequacy of the VC programmes (Webex)"

The largest single barrier to online learning was low student participation, cited by two thirds of participants. Difficulties with practical work or courses which did not lend themselves easily to online learning affected nearly half of respondents, with 40% citing inadequate workspace and nearly 30% poor internet connection as barriers to online activity.

Approaches to online delivery

Around half of respondents felt that they had been able to work in a collegiate manner (48%) with a majority agreeing that lecturer professionalism had been encouraged (68%). However, the speed of transition to online learning meant many felt isolated and that they had been “left to get on with it”. Many lecturers were critical of the mixed messages from SQA and college managements around assessments and there were particular issues with sudden jumps from existing college VLE systems to new technologies such as Microsoft Teams.

"As part of a small teaching team we are constantly sharing ideas and resources. However our current VLE is not entirely fit for purpose for delivering online and engaging online live with students. We are having to use ad-hoc software and other resources to better support our students. We have no directive as to what is the best method to use and are still finding our way while expected to deliver high quality learning to our students."

While many lecturers highlighted the positive collaborative work with colleagues, respondents also cited a lack of direction and unclear expectations contributing to increased stress and concerns about inconsistent approaches and student experiences. This perceived lack of support and poor communication was highlighted at both college management level and nationally (e.g. SQA).

Frequent daily emails from college suggesting online learning platforms were accessible and ready for use were not helpful. Continually felt pressure to try to use these with no prior knowledge of them and limited skills in some areas of technology. Mixed guidance from SQA was also stressful.

"My college is living in fantasy land imagining that a brave new world of online learning will just happen."

Supporting learners remotely

Nearly all lecturers reported barriers for their students engaging in remote learning; these reflected the findings of the earlier EIS FELA student survey (https://www.eis.org.uk/Content/images/corona/FE%20Survey.pdf) including 80% impacted by access to equipment, 77% poor or no internet connection and 76% impacted by challenging home circumstances. 65% cited the impact of paid employment for their learners, including situations where Modern Apprentices and other day release learners had been furloughed and others where learners had been required to work significantly increased hours during lockdown.

More than two thirds cited physical and mental health issues among learners and many expressed concern about learner wellbeing during lockdown and resources to support this – this was particularly the case for learners already vulnerable pre-lockdown, including ESOL, ASN and care-experienced cohorts.

"I have been spending at least 6 hours and more everyday and some nights on my laptop and sometimes at weekends in order to help students with IT skills as well as trying to support at least 9 of my students with Additional Support needs and Mental Health Issues trying to guide them through how to work laptops and new virtual learning platforms such as zoom and wakelet which I am not too familiar with myself … causing me great stress and anxiety"

"Everything. I’ve had students mentioning suicide, to being in abusive homes. Everything you can think of has been mentioned. The college teaching we provide cannot be sustained in the current circumstances. If there were to be evidence that distance learning at FE/HE colleges doesn’t work, then this is it."

"My heart goes out to all of the young (and older) people that I have contact with. Some of the things they have shared with me have made me worried."

Only 12% felt that the needs of learners with ASN had been met since the move to lockdown, with reports that some support staff in these areas had been furloughed. A number of lecturers indicated that learners with ASN in their classes had not responded to contact and that while they were unable to comment further on their situations, they were deeply concerned about their wellbeing and future participation.

Learner mental health and emotional needs were highlighted by many lecturers; while many highlighted the positive work undertaken by colleagues in support roles, others still felt that lecturers were under strain as the first point of contact for (dis)stressed students:

"Students are reporting their emotional and psychological issues as reasons for non completion of work and I have little time and no expertise or resources to deal with these issues. Many students require one-to-one teaching / support/ counselling and I have 100+ students to 'juggle'"

For many lecturers, this impacted upon their own mental health and ability to separate work and home life:

"Students contact us at any time of the day with emotional pleas that are hard to ignore." 

Expectations around online learning and planning for the 2020/21 session

Lecturers’ views on the expectations from their colleges regarding online learning were mixed, with many indicating that they were unclear on what the expectations were for the remainder of the 2019/20 session.

A range of concerns were cited around online learning and planning which will impact in the 2020/21 session, with a quarter of lecturers citing poor communication and/or unrealistic expectations from managers, 55% struggling with an inability to separate the working day and personal life and 60% experiencing challenges in supporting struggling learners.

Just under half of respondents indicated that they had caring responsibilities; of these 40% felt that they had inadequate support from their employer in balancing these with home working.

A third of staff indicated that they were either somewhat or very unconfident about increased use of online learning in the coming academic year; only 13% indicated that they were very confident.

Lecturers indicated that at the time of the survey, plans were still (understandably) tentative for 2020/21 session and many had deep concerns about the forthcoming session. 78% expressed concern about the ability to implement social distancing in classrooms and vocational workspaces, the ability to deliver all aspects of the curriculum (71%) and retention of learners (73%).

"Retention will be a major issue - will not be able to give the learners to experience participating in FE should bring! Experience is not just about the "learning". In addition, many learners are difficult to engage face -to-face in classroom, doing this remotely will be extremely challenging and will demand a lot of time from tutors. These factors will have an impact on retention and even on recruitment if learners don't feel that they want to learn on-line they may choose to defer."

Particular concerns were indicated around recruitment and retention of vulnerable learners and the potential viability of programmes where these could not practically be delivered via blended learning.

Respondents identified four key requirements to build confidence for delivery in the 2020/21 academic session:

  • clarity over how teaching will be delivered (89%)
  • clarity around assessment and/or course structure (81%).
  • time to prepare for blended learning was also essential (86%)
  • access to technology for students (82%)
  • Lecturers raised concerns around equality of access for learners and consistency of delivery and assessment strategies.

"There are huge levels of concern about what next academic session is going to bring. The sector has never been ready for the move to an online, or even blended approach due to staff never properly having enough time to do this properly. I do fear for the student experience next year, and therefore fear for the students themselves."