'National college pay negotiations create a race to the bottom'

As the Association of Colleges consults its members on whether to continue national pay negotiations, Ian Pryce, principal of Bedford College, argues that it's time for a new approach

Ian Pryce

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When I came into further education at incorporation in 1992, FE lecturers were generally less well paid than those working in university, but slightly better paid than the average school teacher and with pretty good job prestige. Most of the ones I knew were subject experts but not trained teachers. It was an era when the Audit Commission had publicly criticised non-completion rates, and condemned FE performance as a “substantial waste of national resources”.

Twenty-five years later, they are professional teachers paid well below similarly qualified people in schools, yet they teach a higher and wider level of students (from entry to level 6), have longer days and less annual leave. Clearly the relative decline in funding accounts for some of that, but I believe national pay bargaining has contributed significantly, too.

‘A bizarre system’

We have a bizarre system where a membership body, the Association of Colleges (AoC), negotiates non-binding recommendations to about 350 colleges of wildly differing financial strengths. A membership body cannot risk upsetting members and will only agree pay awards that are satisfactory to the vast majority of the membership, so well below what the average member might afford. There is no incentive to break ranks and pay more. Unions are equally locked into a one-rise-for-all mentality, so don't expect it. If we break ranks we risk it being used against our colleague principals ("If they can pay more, why can't you?").

It's a recipe for a race to the bottom, compounded by a fixation with teaching hours and inflexible thinking.

I have always wanted staff to develop distinct approaches in each college aimed at rewarding the most expert and professional teachers very well, but accepting that, in a flat-funding world, this means the less expert and professional (not all staff are equal) are paid less well and the less good do more of the bits of the job that are easier.

‘What have you got to lose?’

I qualified as a professional accountant in the 1980s. I now see a new breed of accounting technicians paid as well as I was as a chartered professional. We gave up the easier bits and reserved our time for the higher order work. This means accountants are still compared with doctors and lawyers (who did the same thing) while teachers are now compared with lower paid professionals like nurses. The fixation with teaching hours, with teaching qualifications designed to be easy enough for everyone in the sector to pass, and an inflexible approach to what could be done by others with fewer skills, has turned FE teaching into a commodity, a disaster for pay levels.

My advice for the future is to tell the AoC to stop negotiating and strike innovative long-term deals with some creative colleges that guarantee a big improvement in student outcomes. Then every other college will sit up and take notice, as will government.

Our best teachers need bigger, more resilient salary packages. Here's an opportunity to achieve that goal. What have you got to lose?

Ian Pryce is principal and chief executive of Bedford College

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