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Millennium deal to replace strife?;FE Focus

But individual colleges still have to settle the six-year contracts dispute, reports Jon Slater

COLLEGE employers and union leaders have agreed a deal to improve working conditions and create a new professional career structure for all lecturers and support staff.

The agreement between the Association of Colleges, the public-sector union Unison and the biggest lecturers' union NATFHE, sets out a blueprint for employment practices for the next millennium.

The agreement finally agreed this week was brokered by the parliamentary all-party group on FE. It represents a recognition by colleges that they cannot expect to recruit and retain high-quality staff without offering adequate rewards.

All sides agree that it could prove to be the first step towards the kind of new career structure proposed for schoolteachers in the Green Paper, Teachers: Meeting the Challenge of Change. Lecturers would be appraised and pay would be related to performance.

But progress on the deal in individual colleges depends on a resolution of the six-year dispute between the AOC and NATFHE over current contracts. A national conference of the union's FE members will be held in London on February 27 to reach a decision on the way forward.

Paul Mackney, NATFHE general secretary, wants the union to do a deal and continue talks on the vexed question of maximum teaching hours per week while negotiating other improvements. But a significant minority want to press ahead with a ballot for strike action.

Details of the latest agreement still have to be fleshed out but the statement calls for "some tangible reward for current staff". There is also a commitment to continuing professional development for all employees and a pledge to "Move the agenda forward on lecturers' pay, pay structures and the appropriate employment model for part-time lecturers."

Linda Butler, AOC communications director, said, "It was a very helpful meeting. There was a real sense of common purpose among MPs, employers and the unions. There was a concern to ensure that the staff who have worked so hard in the past are helped to take the sector forward to the next stage."

As the sixth year ends since colleges left council control the Further Education Funding Council is to audit the sector's workforce to establish how pay levels and structures have changed.

Despite the extra pound;725 million for FE announced by the Government in November, many colleges are still cash-strapped. Lecturers' leaders report that following the disappearance of the senior lecturer grade and increasing casualisation, morale among staff is rock bottom. The introduction of banding by some colleges, has left many lecturers stuck at the top of their pay range with little hope of advancement.

Paul Mackney said: "We need a fundamental review of the chaos that is pay and conditions. If you look at two colleges next to each other there may be a difference in pay of pound;5,000-pound;6,000."

He said working parties led by an independent chair, should look at each area under the eye of an observer from the Department for Education and Employment.

And Mike Foster, MP for Worcester, who attended the meeting said, "I taught as a lecturer and I know how close this is to lecturers' hearts. The group has an enormous role to play in taking this forward."

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