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Let's keep well clear of sectional squabbles

THE FACT that the debate in these pages instigated by the principals' pay league table (FE Focus, January 7) has rumbled on suggests that the issue is a festering boil on the sector that has to be lanced sooner rather than later.

It is only partly a matter of pay differentials, since no percipient person would wish to make direct comparisons between the relative worth of managers and teaching or support staff.

The somewhat intemperate correspondence of the NATFHE treasurer on the matter (Letters, January 21 and today's edition, see below) is significant - not for the clarity and weight of his argument but more for the fact that he probably represents the opinion of a number (hopefully a minority) of disaffected workers.

Juxtaposed with the debate on pay and relativities (or absence of them) was an interesting commentary on the status of FE lecturing staff. I am familiar with the scenario painted by Stephen Jones, even if I am a bit long in the tooth to actually go to parties.

The nub of his comment is germane to the ongoing debate because the issue is more complicated than just pay, important though that is. But it also concerns professional status.

I left schoolteaching at a time when FE was seen as a step up the educational pecking order - pay, conditions, status were all significantly better than those I enjoyed as a schoolteacher.

Now there has been a complete reversal, as evidenced by the School Teachers' Pay Review reports last week.

It would be sterile to engage in a game of educational one-upmanship (which sector has the most difficult environment to operate in? and so on) but it is clear, from the point of view of remuneration, where FE stands in the status stakes.

There is more than a grain of truth in the caveats in Jones' article on nomenclature. The moniker of lecturer has always been something of a misnomer.

Few of us ever lecture in the true sense, unless we want to lose our students, but at least the title did carry with it some sense of professionalism.

Colleges that go too far in the direction of cost-cutting risk losing even the residual goodwill that remains among their teaching staff.

Reductionist managerialism can, and often does, resolve short-term budget deficits, but therein lies the pitfall of diminishing returns.

The key assets in our business are the people, and we have to do more than simply concern ourselves wih customer satisfaction, primary though that remains.

A significant omission from the current debate on pay, conditions and status has been any reference to the army of staff who support the learning and teaching process.

FE has always been hierarchically orientated, and incorporation has made no real dent in this. If teachers are significantly underpaid and undervalued, then this is as nothing compared to the position of large numbers of administrative and manual staff in colleges.

The fragmentation of FE has meant that these colleagues have an even lower profile than they had before, even though in some areas of college work - - student services, for example - - they perform business-critical functions.

The blurring of roles and the decreased differentiation between teaching and support functions is bound to continue as costs are driven down and the sector is forced into competition with private-sector providers in the new context of the learning and skills councils.

In any event, teaching must adapt to the changed circumstances in which it takes place.

But the prognosis is not all bad if we take steps to avoid the worst excesses of the private sector.

Success in the modern service sector is not about operating at the "Woolies" end of the spectrum, but about adding value to the learning process and being the first choice for discerning and demanding customers.

Good leadership is undoubtedly a critical factor but, no matter how inspirational and visionary, I would contend that FE is no place for a rehashed "Great Man" theory of management, long since ditched by the private sector.

The watchword for our sector must surely be teamwork, collegiality based on shared values, and I sincerely hope that the antediluvian language of Fawzi Ibrahim does not herald a return to the bankrupt rhetoric that once characterised our sector.

It is asinine to make sweeping generalisations about management. We can all refer to current and historical horror stories in management and teaching, but to extrapolate from them is fruitless.

We cannot return to the past. The Teachers' Pay Review Board recommendations signal the direction we will be pushed in.

If we disintegrate into sectional squabbling, we will fall even further behind and we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

Robin Landman is an education consultant and a former college manager.

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