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A propitious moment for change;FE Focus

As Labour's New Deal era dawns, The TES asked union and management to set out their new approaches to industrial relations, while Helen Hague reports from Tyneside, a test bed for new Government schemes where the programme is already up and running

by Paul Mackney, general secretary of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education

The FE sector has to change if it is to play a full role in this Government's plans for lifelong learning and re-skilling a New Deal workforce.

It has to shed its reputation as that part of the education world renowned for its banana republics with tinpot dictators and rebellious or exhausted subjects.

Central to such a change is a new start in industrial relations. It is not just NATFHE members who want this but, if my postbag is anything to go by, many college principals also feel it is long overdue.

I am committed to exploring with the Association of Colleges new ways of working through consultation, negotiation and co-operation.

The election of a new NATFHE general secretary together with the AOC's current period of reflection make this a propitious moment.

The most obvious task is to achieve an agreed settlement of the national contracts dispute. Most people with an interest in FE see this coming through a return to national pay bargaining and a framework agreement which provides contractual safeguards on lecturers' and managers' workloads.

Those college principals and chairs of governors who wanted the AOC to break the back of the Silver Book also anticipated something emerging to replace it. There are many local agreements but the seal of legitimacy will come from a national settlement.

But such a prize has proved elusive and is unlikely to be achieved without developing trust and respect between NATFHE and the AOC on less ambitious projects.

In the few months before the pay and contracts issue comes round again in the annual salary negotiations, both sides need to experience some success in working together on less ambitious projects.

To begin to rebuild a negotiating process, there could be: * a regular exchange of bulletins and circulars (currently each side obtains these by stealth); * jointly-agreed advice to colleges, or at least consultation over AOC advice on new initiatives such as compliance with the Disability Discrimination Act; * joint recommendations on health and safety policy development; * joint lobbying of Government to put the case for more funding for FE and proper remuneration for lecturers; * joint work on encouraging good practice in training and staff development policies which, if coupled with proactive staff planning, could prevent many redundancies; * a recommended recognition and procedure agreement for colleges signalling a new approach with regular union-management meetings at college level and facilities - including (let's be really modern!) e-mail access - for union representatives.

The AOC would have to adjust its approach from one of total control human resource management to one placing greater emphasis on consultation and negotiation with unions.

The style of conflict represented by stinging and triumphalist anti-union comments in employer bulletins and frequent resort to the courts has done little for people in the colleges or the students they serve.

NATFHE, for its part, would have to begin to examine some of its cherished shibboleths and search for imaginative ways out of the present impasse. In practice this has often happened at local level, but it is time for us to examine new approaches nationally.

In constructing a new bargaining agenda I am happy to explore any of the following: * single table bargaining for all college staff (ie NATFHE negotiating jointly with at least Unison) at local and national levels, with provision for special interest group meetings when necessary; * a single pay spine for all college staff (clerical workers, technicians, lecturers, senior lecturers and managers) with the abolition of the divisive management spine and agreed guidance on use of pay bands; * harmonisation for the majority of the principal employment conditions such as sick pay, maternity pay, disciplinary procedures and an recognition of the reasons for differences where these occur; * a creative approach to the problem of decasualisation with the AOC and NATFHE jointly recommending the development of new part-time lecturer contracts which afford some degree of flexibility (above a guaranteed minimum number of hours), a limitation on the use of fixed-term contracts and tight restrictions on the use of lecturing agencies.

If we can develop sufficient trust to move on, the AOC will in its turn need to examine whether it can continue to allow the chaos of colleges being able retain their AOC membership while refusing to implement agreements and pay deals. If a bargain is struck nationally, it should stick across the whole sector to prevent unfair competition by those who wish to pursue a sweat shop approach.

There is a real chance over a short period for a fresh start to union-management relations in further education. The NATFHE Industrial Relations approach needs to connect with the AOC's human resources management approach if we are ever to stop talking in parallel.

If we are not able to re-establish proper national bargaining by agreement, the alternatives for NATFHE are clear: * a return to strife and strikes - NATFHE leaders now have more experience of this now than almost any other union and would be likely to favour a guerrilla strategy rather than the "all over the top together and let's get slaughtered in the courts" approach.

* the further development of local bargaining, pacts with groups of colleges and regional or provincial bargaining (of the sort that has been successful in Northern Ireland).

* an approach to the Government for a national commission into FE lecturers' pay and conditions.

* an appeal to the Government to use the funding holdback mechanism to stop colleges using bogus self-employment as a substitute for quality direct employment.

* combinations of the above.

It is important not to over-rate the role of the individuals in history, be they chief executives of college employers' organisations or union general secretaries elected on what has been described as a "left-realist effectiveness ticket".

But it is equally important for key opinion formers to spot the chinks of opportunity when they open up.

Those who are privately urging a fresh start should now come out publicly and enthusiastically in support of it. The seeds of a new future are evident in the present but the recent past is there as well.

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