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Let’s spread the love and secure a bright future for our colleges

For decades the FE sector has been neglected – colleges across the UK need to build on the #LoveOurColleges campaign and win fair funding, writes Julia Belgutay

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It is a story that you can’t forget. It’s about a lecturer who loves teaching in her local college. She feels really strongly about the positive impact that further education is having on her students. But, despite working hard and beyond her contracted hours, she is worried about being able to afford her daughter’s school uniform.

She’s not the only one. Much has been written about the fight by Scottish FE staff, first for more equal pay and conditions across Scotland, and now for improved pay. But this is not a tale from Scotland. It is from Northern Ireland. It’s what Jennifer Redmond, a lecturer there, told me when I spoke to her about pay in the sector.

Over the past few weeks, I have heard similar stories from Wales and England, too. Unlike in Scotland, most lecturers there have seen no – or only very small – increases to their pay for years. But lecturing staff in Scotland say that while a harmonisation deal has led to many of them receiving significant pay increases – which have fired up schoolteachers to protest in Glasgow tomorrow for big pay rises in their own sector – it was no more than a harmonisation deal. A cost-of-living increase is still required, they say, to make sure pay keeps up with inflation.

This week’s magazine feature shows that the battle for fair pay, whatever the definition, is being fought across the UK. And although support staff in Scotland have just accepted their pay deal, pay remains high on the agenda.

FE leaders don’t enjoy seeing their staff struggle; they want to see people earning a decent wage. Of course, amid shrinking budgets, a tiny minority may have set some wrong priorities and put vanity projects ahead of staff and even students. But they are the exception, not the rule.

There is, however, a much wider issue here – and one that was illustrated beautifully south of the border last week. Many thousands of support and teaching staff, managers, principals, sector representatives and students shared on social media why they love colleges using the #LoveOurColleges hashtag.

Countless tweets, posts, blogs and pictures showcased the life-changing and life-affirming work that goes on in FE. This wonderful activity then culminated in as many as 3,000 people marching on Westminster to demand better funding for colleges.

And this campaign was launched because the sector realised one thing: FE has been losing out. It hasn’t been alone in that, of course: schools have also missed out while other public policy areas have been prioritised. But overall, even when education has been on the receiving end of governments’ affections, all too often, the FE and skills sector has been overlooked.

Very little is rosy in the English FE garden – ballots on strike action for lecturers closed last Friday. And yet last week, unions, management and students, along with politicians from both sides of the dispatch box, stood together on top of a bus in the pouring rain in Parliament Square, urging the government to support the sector better, and telling the public to take notice.

So why was Scotland so quiet last week? Why were there no tales from Scotland highlighting how FE institutions are changing lives every day across the country? Why did I not see teachers, support staff, management and FE students coming together and shouting from the rooftops that FE deserves better? And, much more crucially, why have I never seen this?

Pay is important. Sector finance is important. But the bigger story is the way the sector – not just in Scotland, but across the UK – has been neglected, overlooked and taken for granted. If FE is to survive and thrive, we need to come together to bring this to an end.

#LoveOurColleges. All our colleges. All across the UK.

Julia Belgutay is an FE reporter for Tes. She tweets @JBelgutay