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Bosses are now your comrades

The 'unthinkable' has happened: the ACM has joined the TUC. Ian Nash talks to its new president about the implications

A quiet revolution is taking place among college managers that should be ringing alarm bells in corridors of power.

The Association for College Management (ACM) has joined the TUC, fulfilling a long-held ambition of the new president, Richard Atkins, principal of Exeter College.

It nails the colours of the managers to the same trade-union mast as their staff, but, he told FE Focus: "I see no incompatibility in the ACM being a trade union and professional association. We are in a new age of trade unionism."

The driving force behind the decision to affiliate was Peter Pendle, who became general secretary a year ago. But many members, like Mr Atkins, already had a strong desire to join.

"A few years ago it would have been considered unthinkable," Mr Atkins said in an interview to mark his presidency. But New Labour's perceived failure to tackle the core problems facing the sector, while making ever more demands, has driven managers to exasperation.

The Government had also driven people with high aspirations out of the sector, he insisted. The recent recruitment survey by the Association of Colleges (AOC) showed that the average number of applicants for a top job was about 20 to 30. Ten years ago, it was 200. "Where are the young Turks?"

he asked. In his day, the awkward squad rose to become effective managers. Now, disillusioned with politics, they either have to toe the line or quit for the big bucks of private industry.

But complying with an increasingly interventionist government takes its toll on those who remain. "I am staggered at the number of people off work with stress in my college," he said.

Labour says it has put an extra pound;527 million (20 per cent) into FE over two to three years. That may be true, he said, but cash was earmarked for new work, while spending on core work fell to 1995-96 levels. For Richard Atkins, "the Government is failing FE".

Another thing that persuaded the ACM to affiliate was the way the TUC had changed, responding to the rise of white-collar workers and increased stress among managers. "The TUC came closer to adopting our values and aspirations over the past 10 years. It is a broader church and we have to be part of it," he said.

The ACM's clout has always outweighed its size. With 3,500 members, it had to sharpen up its act in response to a big cut in middle managers in the early 1990s. "We have been known for outstanding casework," said Mr Atkins.

The ACM has given an impressive performance saving jobs or sealing excellent redundancy deals. The fight for jobs soon became paramount.

Labour's perceived failure to tackle basic issues of pay, conditions and parity with school teachers has united employers and staff unions. Hence the common submission for pound;2.5bn extra cash in advance of the chancellor Gordon Brown's comprehensive spending review.

Mr Atkins has always been a political thinker in trade unions and professional associations. A former school teacher, he switched to FE in the 1980s and rapidly rose through college management at Chichester, Guildford, York, Yeovil and Exeter. "I see no incompatibility in being a principal and member of a TUC-affiliated union," he said.

With NATFHE and the ATL, ACM adds clout for FE at the top of the Congress. And, with a third of principals in both ACM and the AOC membership, it makes it harder for governments to drive a wedge between unions and employers.

"One of the defining moments came when we signed up to a joint pay claim with NATFHE. It would have been unthinkable even 12 months ago," he said.

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