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The shameful sound of silence

Little joy will be gained from the public spectacle of a professional association like the National Association for Teachers in Further and Higher Education airing in the columns of The TES the internal differences of senior members over the contractual issue.

To say that times change and we must change with them is a cliche, but inevitably there will be a conflict between those who wish to embrace change (no doubt to anticipate ways of ameliorating the consequences) and those who will resist change at all costs or at best be persuaded reluctantly to acquiesce.

Undoubtedly the context, the process and some at least of the players have changed. The days when NATFHE and representatives of the Council for Local Education Authorities (CLEA) got together in smoke-filled rooms, where the latter offered reasonable percentage pay rises in return for barely perceptible modifications to Silver Book conditions, have changed.

The FE funding mechanism provides a continuous downward pressure on costs, no-one is sure whether there will be a national deal or a plethora of local ones and certainly the employers negotiators now represent a majority of new "independent" college governors. Their experience is in business or industry and the culture and processes of the educational world are strange to them, if not alien. Continuous rejection of these people's values and judgment is not helpful, and neither is their personal vilification.

Business governors may reasonably question current contracts, which are more than one-fifth holiday, and they may seek further information on a 14-point incremental pay scale progression which is based on time serving without even a passing reference to performance.

But in neither instance does such questioning turn governors into fascists, and they should not be portrayed as such. However, their questions should be answered and their conclusions rebutted with arguments based on reason rather than rhetoric.

So far the silence has been deafening and the refusal of NATFHE to even talk through the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service compounds the felony.

Of course, there are arguments against open-ended contracts. There must be some evidence of fairness in their management and some trust in the managers, and it would be useful if, in the place of the chanting of "increased stress" as a universal mantra, these anxieties could be explored and developed in open debate.

There must be an upper limit on doing more of the same thing or performance will drop, but that does not preclude doing things in a different way and increasing effectiveness as a result.

The current conditions are not equitable, and any new conditions should, operationally at least, attempt to ensure not only reasonable workloads, but a fair distribution of reasonable workloads.

This is more problematic if bureaucratic case-loading procedures are to be avoided. Excessive marking, assessment and gratuitous clerking and mechanical tasks should be kept to a minimum so that lecturers can concentrate on work in the classroom, workshop and laboratory with a consequent improvement in productivity. As one member of staff said to me: "some of us could do more but we cannot do everything."

Perhaps rather than hurling prejudices at each other, the time has arrived to see whether we can communicate common aims and values in a staff charter which can be adopted by corporations as and when resources and confidence allow.

It would be foolish to expect that this would give anyone legal entitlement but initially it could provide a framework for dialogue and for reasoned views to be expressed.

Staff in colleges are not just the "most expensive resources" nor are they valuable assets "to be harnessed for the benefit of the service".

Together with governors, principals and managers, they should be partners in bringing added value to the lives of the students they serve and in the process add value to their own lives.

It is a partnership which few have spoken about before, perhaps they should do so now.

Ken Ruddiman is principal of The Sheffield College.

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