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Now we have the chance for a real celebration

There should have been dancing in the college staffrooms. Last month at the conference of the Association of Colleges David Blunkett gave further education its biggest-ever vote of confidence from a government minister. More than words, there was hard cash attached.

The lecturers' union, Natfhe, felt rather celebratory about the Education and Employment Secretary's comments. The "twin pillars of access and standards, " widening participation, progress on student support, a qualified teaching profession, more democratic governing bodies and the replacement of competition by partnership - these were all things we've advocated.

But the truth is that by and large neither lecturers nor the support staff felt they had been invited to the party.

Natfhe has been trying to talk up further education all year. FE colleges now have some four million enrolments. The additional 700,000 will take that towards five million early in the next century. It is a cause for celebration and we should be moving into a period of innovation, experiment and yes, partnership.

There is a logic in extending lifelong learning through co-operation; and an even greater logic in proposals for regional structures that may start to eliminate the cut-throat competition.

But there is a danger of a credibility gap. Lecturers have yet to see the new culture of co-operation make much difference to their working lives. There will be no "learning revolution" without staff involvement.

If corporations want to do the best for their students, they must prioritise the partnership with their staff. This means listening, mutual respect and valuing all players. Some messages will be uncomfortable and the honest messengers will not always be polite. As the therapists say, there is a lot of pain to work through.

The extra cash Mr Blunkett pledged in Harrogate will bring no greater stability if colleges can't shake off their revolving door image where students come in and leave without achievements.

To stem the drop-out rate we need financial support for students, high quality courses and adequate learning support from staff.

This is difficult to achieve when teaching is cut to the bone and 40 per cent of the teaching force are exploited part-timers who don't get paid for meetings and extra work outside the classroom.

If colleges are serious about giving these 700,000 students a decent education they should be thinking of expanding, not ditching their full-time teaching force.

Rapid change requires considerable flexibility by staff. But it has to cut both ways. College staff need to be able to embrace change without fear, see an end to mass redundancies, victimisation of union reps, and pay that is way below that for schoolteachers.

We applaud the moves toward a qualified FE teaching force - it's long overdue and we look forward to working with FENTO, the new training watchdog. We want professional qualifications -recognised in schools and higher education.

Professional qualifications may end the temptation to use cheapskate delivery models, including bogus self-employment through agencies or temporary parachute artists' contracts.

Everyone knows, including government ministers who have done it, that FE with high standards will never be delivered by lecturers teaching more than 23 or 24 hours per week. Principals or governors who don't know should try doing it, or if that's not on, work shadowing.

NATFHE members wanted a national framework agreement - with room for local variations - but voted down the one on offer because those with local agreements feared that their teaching workloads would be driven up yet again. The AOC is now consulting on whether the framework should be taken off the table altogether. This would not be good for the mood music.

While in Harrogate, I overheard a principal saying: "Now we've got the money, let's put an end to the nonsense of alliances with Natfhe."

It is precisely when we have the money and new opportunities that Natfhe and the AOC need a national concordat on what constitutes efficient, effective and just staffing arrangements to move into a new era.

When social inclusion involves relationships with staff which promote trust, they'll be doing the "Learning Age Boogie". Let's do it. New Year is a good time for a party. If we're invited we may even add a little harmony by singing along as well.

Paul Mackney is the general secretary of NATFHE

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