Paul Mackney, general secretary of Natfhe
Lecturers' union Natfhe is proud of further education. Our members help change people's lives - 3 million adults a year, more than 700,000 16 to 18-year-olds, and increasing numbers of 14 to 16-year-olds - a projected quarter of a million by 2008. What colleges do underpins much of the economic, social and civic infrastructure of the country.
FE has consistently responded positively and flexibly to new government initiatives - piling on students when asked, identifying specialisms.
Despite constant change and historic under-funding, overall quality is pretty good, as revealed by Ofsted reports - and 90 per cent of students are satisfied with the teaching they get.
Natfhe welcomes the Concord Group's endeavour to develop a shared vision for FE that could help raise understanding and support. It is quite possible to celebrate achievements whilst identifying factors which inhibit fulfilment of mission, so let us beware of accusations of whingeing that seek to divert attention from problems that need tackling.
The ability of FE to build on its reputation and to enhance its image depends in large part on the enthusiasm of its workforce. The Concord partnership's objectives include high-quality teaching and management by professional, qualified and valued staff, and resources, autonomy and authority for staff to exercise within public policy. Success for All's aim to build a fully qualified learning and skills workforce by 2010 was a major advance - something Natfhe had long argued for.
We welcome, too, the proposals for reforming FE initial teacher training.
The Government's union learning fund has led to the recruitment of a burgeoning cadre of union activists to proselytise about the value of skills and personal development, and negotiate access to training. FE should take a creative interest in this strategy in stimulating demand for college provision and employer links and also in developing its own workforce. Using the learning fund, Natfhe is developing a network of branch learning representatives to further professional development opportunities for college staff. We hope that colleges will grasp this with open arms.
Does the Government, do colleges, value FE staff? A skilled electrician who re-trained as an FE lecturer once rang Natfhe when he got a college job to see if they had got his starting salary wrong. In Victor Meldrew's immortal words he "could not believe it". Mistakenly, as it turned out, he had thought he was improving himself. With a majority of colleges unable to introduce a new salary scale with a modest starting point of pound;20,000 for qualified lecturers, and with casualisation and insecurity rife in the sector, one might well ask why anyone in their right mind would contemplate a career in FE. And with over 50 per cent due to retire in the next decade, this is a dangerous situation. Closing the school-college funding gap and finding a mechanism to ensure that pay modernisation agreements are translated into pay increases must be priorities in the Government's developing skills strategy.
Those who stay in FE do so out of a deep commitment. But they could be the shock PR troops for the sector, for attracting new staff and students, for demonstrating colleges' centrality to employment needs, their value for civic society. And as the people who really understand how people get on and stay on the learning climbing frame, their opinions should be centre stage in education policy. So, high on the to-do list must be investing in staff, having collaborative decision-making, giving people professional respect and authority whilst strengthening colleges' strategic role in setting provision for their communities.
Paul Mackney is general secretary of Natfhe