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Governors are right to be cautious about big salaries

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Whether you’re a college principal or a long-serving member of support staff, everybody in FE loves poring over the list of the best-paid college leaders in the sector.

From teachers seething at not getting a pay rise this year, to principals figuring out what it takes to crack the top 10, there’s something for everyone.

Want to fume at an apparently massive increase? Knock yourself out. There are certainly some sizeable pay rises, which raise serious questions about value for money. But while it will always be salaries like the £363,000 paid out by Nescot that attract the most attention, TES Further analysis suggests that, overall, there is a slightly less headline-grabbing trend: the salaries of senior leaders are going down. Not by much, certainly (and there are plenty of individuals who have received increases far higher than inflation), but the drop in the number of principals and chief executives in the elite £200,000-plus club marks an unmistakable shift.

With colleges across the country having complained that funding pressures have become more acute over the past two years, it is quite right that governors should think twice before throwing caution to the wind in order to attract a big name to the principal’s office. Particularly at a time when the Association of Colleges has been arguing that its members cannot afford even a nominal pay rise for their rank-and-file staff.

And putting the data in the public domain is unquestionably the right thing to do. Indeed, a recent document circulated to the area review stakeholder advisory group called for colleges to provide details of their three best-paid employees – “we are looking to increase the transparency associated with pay in the sector,” it added.

Hopefully these figures will also make their way into the public domain; with new governance structures emerging, the ubiquitous job title of “principal and chief executive” is likely to end up being split into separate jobs in more and more institutions in the coming months.

A complex balancing act

Remuneration is a fiendishly complex balancing act. On the one hand, any supporter of the FE sector would want its institutions to be able to attract the most talented leaders they can (hence the growing trend for FE institutions to turn to “outsiders” with no previous experience of the sector, but extensive knowledge of private-sector practices).

But when taxpayers’ money is at stake and funding across the board is getting ever more precious, anything deemed to be frivolous or irresponsibly generous risks incurring the wrath of the very workforce that will be doing the bulk of the work needed to train up the next generation of employees for UK plc.

It’s always easy to find a headline in the data – but context is key. For instance, it may sound shocking that more than 60 principals take home a bigger salary than the prime minister. On the other hand, the average salary of a university vice-chancellor (£275,000) is more than double that of a college principal – one former University of Oxford vice-chancellor received a whopping £462,000 for the academic year 2014-15.

At the other end of the scale, it was announced this week that apprentices’ minimum wage will go up by the princely sum of 10p per hour. So much for parity of esteem – even in National Apprenticeship Week.

@stephenexley

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