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If it's good enough for schools, why not for us?

"A feast is made for laughter and wine maketh merry but money answereth all things." Thus proclaims the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Let me hasten to reassure my friends that I have not turned to religion over the Christmas period. It is just that this quote seems to sum up the time of year - feasting, drinking and general merrymaking followed by the financial reckoning, a hole in the bank balance and the dreaded credit card bills.

Teachers at least have the consolation that more money will probably be coming their way via the post-McCrone package. I am sure that most staff in the further education sector would wish that similar attention were being paid to their pay and conditions.

True, there has been a large injection of cash in the past two years, but this has been allocated to fund the growth in student numbers, to provide extra student support, to purchase new technology and to invest in capital projects. The problem is that extra FE funding has not included an amount set aside specifically for pay increases for staff.

Of course, without national bargaining the sector is essentially Balkanised. No coherent voice speaks for FE on this issue because no unified view exists. The Association of Scottish Colleges is in a difficult position in attempting to represent a view of its member institutions because the colleges themselves are divided on the fundamental issue of whether there should be a return to national bargaining.

I am sure that this suits ministers very well - in fact many people believe that ideally the Government would prefer schools and universities, not only in Scotland but in the rest of the UK, to determine the remuneration of all staff at their own institutional level, and that is why there is no move to restore national bargaining in FE.

Another reason, of cours, is that further education can be ignored more easily than schools and universities, which have more significant voices to plead on their behalf. This is to take nothing away from the ASC, which plays a critical role in representing the interests of the sector. But, as a former colleague used to say, there are no votes in FE - so who really cares?

It is useful to remind ourselves that the McCrone committee strongly rejected a system of local bargaining of pay and conditions for teachers, citing among others the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the then Minister for Education in support of its view.

Can someone please explain why local bargaining is bad for schools and good for further education?

Recent reporting on the teachers' negotiations warned of the dangers of industrial action if there is a failure to reach an agreement acceptable to them and affordable by government. Yet industrial unrest has existed in significant parts of further education since the abolition of national bargaining, and I believe it is likely to worsen.

Many of my colleagues despair of a situation where teachers may be awarded salary increases of between 10 per cent and 15 per cent which colleges will then be unable to match.

Jack McConnell, the Education Minister, who has to implement the outcome of the McCrone talks, was reported recently as saying that "the only way to change is for everybody to accept that the status quo is not acceptable".

I would urge that Mr McConnell and other members of the Executive, especially those with responsibility for further education, accept that, in terms of pay and conditions, the status quo in colleges is equally unacceptable.

Norman Williamson is principal of Coatbridge College and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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