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FE Focus Editor's comment

Two years ago, lecturers threatened a national boycott of plans to get 14 to 16-year-olds into colleges unless the 12 per cent pay gap with teachers was closed.

Last year, similar threats were made to try and secure cash fir colleges to train staff who would be dealing with these younger pupils. Much evidence surfaced at Natfhe, the lecturers' union's 2003 conference to suggest colleges were increasingly a "dumping ground" for disruptive pupils.

Paul Mackney, the general secretary, said: "This neo-Conservative government is doing things the Tories would never have dared to do."

What can we expect from this year's annual conference which starts in Blackpool tomorrow? The anxiety has not abated. And, far from boycotting the initiative, lecturers are coping with a record 100,000 14 to 16-year-olds, a total that is expected to grow to 200,000 within three years.

So, do the protests amount to little more than a whinge from people with a "victim" mentality? No, of course not. Colleges have over the two to three years recruited record numbers of 16 to 19-year-olds and hit the best part of the Government's basic skills targets.

And what has happened to pay? Lecturers remain pound;3,000 - if not more - behind school teachers. Remember what ministers said when the record pound;1.2 billion for colleges was announced. This was not a giveaway, said Education Secretary Charles Clarke. He wanted "something for something". It was the catchphrase of Blairism. So lecturers would be right to ask:

"Where's our something?"

There seems to be little hope of significant cash coming from anywhere.

This week, we have dire warnings from Wales, which only a year ago was boasting of being well ahead of England on FE funding. The post-16 funding agency ELWa says the sector cannot rely on continued annual budget increases to pay for more students. In classic New Labour-speak, they say, colleges must "modernise".

The impact on colleges of the cash shortages in England are described graphically by John Brennan, Association of Colleges chief executive, in an open letter to Charles Clarke (opposite). The message is clear, the pot of cash is not enough to do everything the Government expects.

Without extra cash, ministers need to ask some serious questions about what initiatives to abandon. What about the initiative to get more 14 to 16-year-olds into colleges?

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