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'College principals' pay must be grounded in financial pressures'

Setting college CEOs' pay is a tricky balancing act – and the risks of getting it wrong are high, writes Stephen Exley

Colleges have a tricky balancing act in setting CEOs pay, writes Stephen Exley

“Interestingly… a number of those principals were among the highest-paid in the sector. I’ll just leave that for people to draw their own conclusions.” The words of FE commissioner Richard Atkins, when discussing the fate of the leaders of the flurry of colleges to have entered intervention in recent months owing to financial problems, are even more pertinent now that the college accounts have been published.

While publication of the figures has long been a significant date in the calendar for people working in FE, this year’s figures pose some complex, but nonetheless potentially troubling, issues.

First, the good news. While the £200,000-plus salaries of the 12 CEOs at the top of the pay table sound astronomical to rank-and-file college staff, it is a reduction from the 17 leaders paid at this level in the previous year (with the caveat that some colleges' figures are yet to be submitted).

Quick read: Best-paid college principals in England revealed

In depth: ‘When you’ve run out of money, it’s too late’

More news: Richard Atkins stays as FE commissioner until 2020

'No evidence of runaway pay'

The Department for Education was quick to get its oar in, with a statement sent to the press alongside the figures stressing: “There has been no evidence of runaway executive pay in further education in recent years which shows that our requirements on pay disclosure, and application of best practice by colleges in setting pay, is working effectively across the sector.”

A quick glance at schools and universities suggests that, looking at the overall picture, the DfE may have a point. Six universities paid their vice-chancellors over £500,000 in salary, bonuses and benefits last year, while nearly half of received £300,000 or more.

And last year Sir Dan Moynihan, chief executive of the Harris Federation MAT, saw his salary increase to £440,000 - taking his total package for the year to between £550,000-£565,000.

'A tricky balancing act'

Executive pay is a tricky balancing act for the FE sector. Another year has passed without a government-funded pay rise for college teachers, who have seen their salaries slip further behind their counterparts in schools. At the same time, the thought of the sector not being able to attract and retain high-quality senior leaders is a concern.

What is perhaps more troubling is the amount of churn among the best-paid senior college leaders. Of the 12 top-paid leaders in 2017-18, six are no longer in post; four of these colleges have since been subjected to intervention by the FE commissioner.

Instability at the top of our colleges benefits no-one. Good leaders require appropriate pay, commensurate with their experience – but always grounded in the reality of financial pressures facing colleges.

Retaining a level-headed, pragmatic approach and appropriate levels of oversight should be common sense – recent guidance published by the Association of Colleges suggests some ways of achieving this. Governing bodies would be well advised to abide by the smell test: if they are considering a pay package which they feel questions could be raised about later down the line – especially if other staff are receiving a less generous annual pay rise – it’s a sure fire sign that they should think again.

The main positive to come out of the #LoveOurColleges campaign work across the sector so far has been seeing an unprecedented outbreak of unity among people working in colleges in a host of different roles. Colleges have a duty to ensure that the salaries they pay their senior leaders don’t put this in jeopardy.

Stephen Exley is FE editor at Tes

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