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How quickly fortunes change. A year ago, general further education lecturers were threatening strikes while colleagues in sixth-form colleges had sealed a three-year pay deal. Now there is peace and a done deal in general colleges while sixth-form colleges face what could be virtually a pay freeze.

Two factors have brought this about. First, Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, failed to spell out the real demands on budgets when he announced the "record" 19 per cent rise last year.

Second, the Learning and Skills Council expects the cash set aside for pay to stretch to other things such as staff development. Hence there is no money in the pot to pay this year's element of the deal.

College leaders have met the new lifelong learning minister Alan Johnson to protest, but have yet to get satisfaction. Indeed, under the funding regulations, it could be beyond his immediate control.

Worse still, with dire warnings from the Treasury of an end to the public sector "cash bonanza", what is lost this year will be difficult to regain in future. Having at long last reached parity with school pay, sixth-form colleges fear an inexorable slide back down the salaries league.

This is familiar territory. When colleges were incorporated 10 years ago, austerity measures and a drive to casualise lecturers' work saw college pay rates plunge compared with those in schools. Though Labour in opposition accepted the need for urgent action, it has taken six years to put things nearly right.

Now, things are falling apart. Sixth-form college leaders say they are "actually in a worse position on funding than they have been for years". When schools warned of similar funding difficulties, Charles Clarke, Education Secretary, announced additional cash.

A similar solution for the colleges must be found or all the gains, and the goodwill, will be lost.

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