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No votes for Labour's campaign of calculated vindictiveness

WHEN you've voted Labour as long as I have, not to do so is a bit like falling out with an old friend. True, the friend was a wayward, often volatile creature, one who tested my patience time and again. But, as his heart was in the right place, he was always to be preferred to more consistent but less compassionate company.

No longer, though. On June 7, I will give the polling station a miss. This will be the only time I will have not voted Labour since I first did my democratic duty in 1970.

It will be a wrench, no doubt about it. But there comes a point when even the most cherished relationship needs to be reviewed. So what better reason for a rethink than a growing sense of principle and policy avowed then betrayed? The fact that I fervently hoped and voted for the present government makes me no less inclined to judge the value of pledges that, in 1997, held out the prospect of an administration more guided by integrity and compassion than its predecessors.

Leaving aside the more general embarrassments - the Bernie Ecclestone pound;1 million donation fiasco, a hastily abandoned "ethical foreign policy", declining standards in the National Health Service - let us focus on education. After all, anything that deserves a triple emphasis - "Education, education, education" - merits commensurate scrutiny.

Regarding schoolteachers, the picture isn't good. Let's face it: for the three main unions to join in protest against government educational policy, it can't be. But at least teachers' grievances receive wide publicity: teacher shortages, frequent and prolonged sickness (in some cases, even suicide) through stress, intolerable levels of paperwork, meagre pay. The result is a measure of public sympathy, all of it well deserved.

But what of FE? It seems that hardy anybody notices or, particularly the government, much cares about the current state of further education. Which, as lecturers know at first hand and from reading this section of The TES, is little short of dire.

FE is commonly referred to as "the Cinderella sector", a name more apt than ever now that we're paid buttons. Some FE jobs, even in central London, are advertised with a ceiling of just under pound;18,000 a year. Lecturers with a salary of pound;25,000 p.a. can count themselves lucky, even if, by the lowest estimate, their pay falls short of a teacher's by 10 per cent. It goes without saying how badly such salaries compare with many outside teaching.

No wonder there's a recruitment crisis in the sector, as much the result of rock-bottom morale as measly wages. The talk in staffrooms around the country is of the latest scandal, the most recent scam, in their own or another college. Or of the latest government "initiative" - always a good word for a paper-laden, non-negotiable scheme (key skills, anyone?) - foisted on an already overloaded workforce. Or of which colleagues have packed it in through combined exhaustion and exasperation. Or of the introduction of performance-related pay, a strategy on which the government seems set despite no end of informed advice to the contrary.

All these and more add up to what is less a reasoned educational policy than what looks like a campaign of sustained, calculated vindictiveness. If the rationale is unfathomable, the outcome is transparent. Lecturers have been and are being treated with contempt by those who profess to and certainly should know better.

Not through any peevish parochialism, but rather some hurt and much disgust will I deny my vote to a party that has so devalued FE and those who work for it.

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