WITHIN the next 12 months, further education lecturers should be able to join a professional institute - along the lines of bodies already in place for schoolteachers and lecturers in higher education.
With a complete absence of any fanfare, the Government has told employer organisations and unions representing teachers and other FE staff to get the Institute for Learning up and running as quickly as possible, following consultations with the sector during the next few months.
The IfL - as it will be known - is a natural development for FE lecturers, given that they are currently the only major group of teachers without a professional body. Lecturers in higher education have been able to join the Institute for Learning and Teaching (ILT) since June 1999 with just over 5,000 currently paying pound;75 per year to be members.
Schoolteachers in England, meanwhile, were recently instructed to hand over pound;23 to join the General Teaching Council. The Welsh Assembly is funding the GTC for Wales until next April.
The GTC has far wider-ranging powers than either the ILT or the proposed IfL in that it maintains a register which staff must be on in order to teach in a state school. Given that lecturers will not be forced to join the IfL, what benefits will it bring and how much can individuals expect to be asked to pay to join?
Nadine Cartner, the Association for College Management's education officer, believes the IfL will give lecturers a sense of belonging to a profession. However, few are likely to volunteer an annual membership fee without believing that they will get benefits.
"The IfL must be clear about what value it can add for people who work in FE," she says. "It has to be clear about what role it can carve out for itself in terms of professional development given that we already have the Further Education National Training Organisation (FENTO) and the Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA)."
The ACM is one of eight organisations supporting the IfL. Others include the LSDA, three unions and FENTO, which is in charge of consultations and overseeing the setting up of the institute.
Sue Berryman, assistant secretary of the lecturers' union NATFHE, says the institute will have to win over the "hearts and minds" of people working in FE, but that it will complement the introduction of a new qualifications framework for lecturers this autumn.
Membership will be open to college managers and non-teaching staff who have gained qualifications endorsed by FENTO. "We need a body that will express the FE interest," says Ms Berryman. "The IfL will be a body for teachers and for people who support teaching."
A survey carried out by FENTO last year showed 64 per cent of lecturers wished to join the IfL. Ten per cent were opposed while the remainder were undecided. Later this year, lecturers who have expressed an interest in joining the institute through its website (www.ifl.ac.uk) will be invited to become "champions" for the institute within their college and generate support among colleagues.
The Government is not expected to provide the same level of start-up grants for the IfL as it did for the GTC and the ILT. A decision on the fee that will be levied is unlikely to be taken until next term, but it will probably be somewhere between the pound;23 charged by the GTC and the pound;75 fee for joining the ILT.
Among the issues to be discussed with the other two bodies are the joint recognition of qualifications held by teachers and lecturers in HE. The IfL will also maintain a code of professional ethics - possibly to be based on an existing code drawn up by the LSDA.
Pauline Lovell, director of business development at FENTO, says that, while the main emphasis of the IfL will be professional development, it is important for the institute to have teeth and to be willing to tackle challenging issues such as professional misbehaviour by staff.
No code, however, will be imposed without the support of members. "We are inviting people to say what they think. The institute has to be something that people feel they have a say in," she adds.
Carol Gibson, chair of the Principals Professional Council, wants to see the IfL playing a lobbying role, not least to help improve the pay of lecturers. The code of ethics would need to acknowledge the fact that working in FE is becoming increasingly complex - partly as a result of the diverse range of learners enrolling on to courses.
"We are not trained social workers, on the other hand we are having to deal with personal issues and support students," she said. "The stronger the guidelines the better, but they must come from people who are used to being in those sorts of working situations."
Graham Peeke, director of professional and organisation development at the LSDA, envisages the IfL establishing a framework for development of staff - rather than being a training provider in the same way as his own organisation. "It should raise the status of the profession in rather the same way as the Teacher Training Agency has raised the profile of teaching in the eyes of the public," he says.