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Sales talk from lecturers' agency

A private recruitment firm is causing concern among FE principals. Antony Dore investigates. Further education colleges will be making a decision in the next few weeks that could alter the employment status of one of the largest groups of part-time workers in the country.

They will be choosing whether to sign up with Education Lecturing Services (ELS), a private agency offering to supply up to 40,000 self-employed lecturers for short and part-time courses. For a joining fee of Pounds 6,000, plus the same amount annually, colleges will be linked to the ELS's computer data bank of teachers' names, experience and qualifications.

ELS-registered colleges will be forced to make certain lecturers redundant, who would then be given self-employed work via the agency at a rate set by the college, starting from Pounds 10 an hour. Forty principals have already joined.

But in promoting itself ELS - a non-profit-making company - has been accused of trying to "bounce" colleges into registering by June with hard-sell techniques, and of failing to make sufficiently prominent the fact that its parent company Protocol National will take profits. The agency's two current directors are John Kirkland and Melvin Sheldon, who are also directors of Protocol, along with Geoff Lennox, who heads ELS. Mr Kirkland is backing the agency with Pounds 5.5 million from his own Midlands building and consultancy firms and high street banks.

Several colleges are also questioning the role of the Colleges' Employers' Forum, which represents governing bodies, in helping set up ELS; they fear it may compromise the CEF's ability to provide impartial advice.

Michael Austin, principal of Accrington and Rossendale College attended an ELS presentation organised by the CEF at the Piccadilly Hotel, Manchester, in March, which he compared to a time-share sales pitch. "It was very much high-pressure and whizz-bang," he recalls. "The message was that you had better sign up quickly: if the sector doesn't want it we will go away. They mentioned Protocol, but didn't say what the relationship was."

Bury College principal John Fargher was also critical of the pressure for an instant decision at the presentation. "The notion was that if not enough people signed up or showed an interest it would not get off the ground. I was not entirely happy about that." He added that he was not left with a clear impression of Protocol's role.

ELS documents show that Protocol, as well as being the owner of the agency, will supply and run the ELS database and provide "various management services" and "fee management facilities". As the only shareholder and with common directors, Protocol could set its own fees to its subsidiary, some college principals fear. It could therefore decide whether the profit went, to ELS - which by the firm's rules would mean it must be ploughed into education - or back to itself.

After the presentations, ELS client services director Tim Parkes sent several colleges letters saying they must sign up by May 31 if they want to use the agency in September, when colleges need part-time lecturers quickly. Mr Austin sees this as another attempt to pressurise colleges. Brian Styles, principal of Brunel College of Arts and Technology, Bristol, also received the letter. He said: "They were trying to bounce a few people into signing, with the message that if you don't you will miss the boat. I ignored the letter."

CEF chief executive Roger Ward has always maintained that there is no financial or contractual relationship between ELS and himself or his organisation. But the role of Rachel Newman, an assistant principal of Derby College, Wilmorton, has called this stance into question.

Ms Newman was seconded from Derby to work for the CEF in January to study ways of employing part-time staff in the light of new British and European regulations. This brought her into contact with ELS. According to Geoff Lennox of ELS, she worked for the agency "most of the time initially and since then all of the time". Her name appears as an ELS contact at its Nottingham offices.

Mr Ward said that the CEF insisted on ELS paying back Ms Ward's wages for all but the first few weeks because the agency was getting more benefit from her work. Mr Lennox admits he has received "good value" from the arrangement.

Mr Ward insists: "It is a pretty tenuous connection. We have not paid her a penny for working for ELS. The CEF cannot have commercial or financial links with companies that it recommends. As soon as it became obvious she was of more benefit to ELS than the CEF, we stepped in."

Brian Styles, whose college is a member of the CEF, feels it should be putting more energy into other arrangements for employing part-time staff rather than "getting into bed" with ELS. He said: "My concern would be that the CEF's role should be above it, not with it."

Mr Ward added that the CEF has advised Mr Lennox from ELS's genesis and recommended it as the preferred agency for colleges who wanted to use one for part-time staff, although other options such as full-time and fractional (part-time) contracts are also recommended. The CEF had been offered a place on ELS's board, which it has accepted - but would not receive any money for this. Mr Ward says he has asked ELS to invite unions and other voluntary bodies on to the board as well and, if he took up a directorship, would make sure ELS received value for money from Protocol.

Mr Lennox said that while some colleges might feel there was high-pressure selling, many more would disagree. The only request to those at presentations was for an indication of interest in the scheme, to help ELS raise money from the backers.

He said colleges were welcome to join after May 31, although the earlier they signed the better the service would be.

Protocol's relationship and profit-making status was never disguised, but stated in all presentations and literature, Mr Lennox said. "No one with any intelligence would take the view that someone would give us Pounds 5.5 million and not want their money back."

ELS, not Protocol, would regulate the contracts between the two companies, he added.

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