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Fear of an early staff exodus;FE Focus

TRAINING and further education provision may be plunged into chaos next year, well before the Government's new-look learning and skills councils come into being.

Local TEC leaders told The TES they won't be able to deliver an effective service if staff resign in the numbers they fear. And others are threatening to close down before the hand-over in April 2000.

"If enough of our highly-trained and experienced staff find other jobs and leave, we would not be able to operate," said one London chief executive. Others confirm their vulnerability during a 21-month transition period, and their fears of a breakdown in service.

And some may give up first. The head of a Midlands TEC said: "We are independent private companies. The Government can't compel us to keep going - it can only withdraw contracts and licences. We could go into liquidation - and see what they do then."

Government plans to abolish TECs and the Further Education Funding Council, replacing them with one national body with 40-50 local arms, spending a pound;5 billion budget.

TEC staff are unhappy at the prospect of having to become civil servants on lower pay scales.

Sir Michael Bichard, permanent secretary at the DFEE, who conducted the post-16 review, said special help might be available for paying "loyalty bonuses" to TEC staff "who have valuable skills and knowledge".

Both Sir Michael and David Blunkett said they would do all they could to help the 8,000-plus TEC staff obtain jobs in the new learning and skills councils, the Regional Development Agencies or the new small business service.

But key managers and staff have little desire to become civil servants, as most earn significantly above the equivalent civil service grades. The situation is different for FEFC staff, although its regional structure may present problems.

"I have to go to the office on Monday and start motivating 200 people to continue working for the next 21 months with the same dedication and commitment as they show now," said Susan Fey, chief executive of Letec in east London, one of the more deprived TEC areas.

"We shall have to determine what level of bonus payments we need to offer," said Richard Barnfield, chief executive of Bristol-based Westec. Others had "retention strategies" high on their must-do lists.

However, the subject is fraught with danger. Former chief executive of Solotec in Kent, John Howell was given "golden handcuffs" to stay through its recent merger, and left with a controversial pound;265,000 pay-off. Mr Blunkett then sacked the board.

The larger national training providers, such as Spring and Pitman, expect to gain most from centralised purchasing by a national negotiating body. They are preparing to snap up the best staff.

Many chief executives are spending more time with their CVs and, on a TES straw poll, at least half of the 74 will not stay the course if they find suitable jobs elsewhere.

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