Ministers are angry that cash for colleges under the Teachers Pay Initiative has been "spread too thinly" and not targeted at high performers.
Their concerns were communicated to principals at a series of private dinners organised by lifelong learning minister Margaret Hodge. Her message appears to run counter to developments, as reported in FE Focus last week, that ministers are moving away from performance-related pay for their civil servants.
Seven dinners were held in early summer for ministers, senior civil servants and principals to discuss issues of concern to colleges. At least 70 principals attended and a further round of discussions will take place this autumn.
Ms Hodge made clear the Government's discontent with the handling of the pay initiative, several principals told FE Focus this week. They insisted that despite giving her evidence that the cash was being used to attract better quality staff, the minister was far from happy.
One said: "Margaret Hodge made it clear in no uncertain terms how deeply disappointed she was that the money was spread too thinly, rather than being used more imaginatively to reward good teachers. I think she really failed to show a clear understanding of the problems we face."
Another principal, also angry with the minister's emphasis, said: "She did give us the broadest hint possible that we should consolidate the initiative into the pay structure and make it difficult for the Treasury to take it away."
David Gibson, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said:
"Government is right to want to achieve excellence in teaching and this should be supported with higher pay. But there are obvious practical difficulties in doing so.
"Government has acknowledged that lecturers' pay is low. Our core funding, from which bills are largely met, is still at 199596 levels. With colleges losing staff to better-paid equivalent jobs in schools or the private sector, many colleges will of course want to do their best to retain all their people and will use TPI accordingly.
"Ministers should be planning to fund pay rises for all college staff of up to 9 per cent as they have done for their own civil servants."
Issues raised over the dinners included funding, bureaucracy, growth, specialisation, inspection and performance. They were intended to complement the regular briefings of ministers and the permanent secretary by the Learning and Skills Council, or as one principal put it, "to find out what the LSC isn't telling them".
The principals expressed concern about the auditing process, saying they were victims of a "default model" whereby problems identified in a small number of colleges had led to increased layers of audit for all. "We feel we are being treated as if we are all incompetent or eager to cheat the system," they said, adding that audit levels were driving out leaders from the sector.
The principals feel they are not getting the recognition they deserve for their achievements. In particular, they have asked ministers to develop a "value-added" framework to log the "distance travelled" by students, who often start at a lower base than students in schools and sixth-form colleges.