The two largest employers' associations have put themselves in pole position to lead the creation of the new "FE Guild" after they began work on a joint bid, aimed at uniting the sector on professional standards for teaching.
The Association of Colleges (AoC) and the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP), which together represent most of the 1,088 publicly funded training providers, met other FE organisations last week to seek support for developing the guild.
Their decision is also likely to settle the long-term future of FE teaching qualifications. Regulations that were in line to be scrapped currently stipulate that lecturers have to become qualified within five years of starting work. FE minister John Hayes announced that these rules will stay in place until the guild is established and takes responsibility for professional standards and workforce development.
But the AELP has previously stated that it is opposed to regulations mandating qualifications and the AoC has criticised the current arrangements for the Qualified Teacher Learning and Skills status.
Graham Hoyle, chief executive of the AELP, said he expected that the guild would draw up its own requirements for qualifications. Membership would be optional, so that some FE providers would be able to use unqualified staff, but without the endorsement of the guild. "My personal belief is that with employers setting standards, instead of some diktat from government, we will set them higher," he said.
Martin Doel, chief executive of the AoC, said that new standards for teaching qualifications needed to be more flexible. "What we've got is an opportunity to have standards that much better reflect the diversity of the FE workforce, the different roles and the staff profiles, including support staff as well as teachers," he said.
Some colleges might not want qualifications for all their teaching staff, Mr Doel added. "They are autonomous institutions and they will make their own decisions," he said.
Mr Doel denied that the bid was a forgone conclusion and said the AoC and the AELP could not afford to be complacent. But it is not clear that anyone else is in a position to draw up a rival proposition, given the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills' requirement that the guild be "employer-led". "If you have representative organisations for the vast majority of employers making a joint bid, it's difficult to know where a serious competitive bid would come from," Mr Hoyle conceded.
The Institute for Learning (IfL), which lost its status as the compulsory professional body for FE teachers in March after a boycott, may not have a formal role in the new guild but both employer organisations said they wanted its support.
"They are one of the key organisations we are hoping will be supportive of what we are doing. IfL is absolutely in the mix for the support of a comprehensive body," said Mr Hoyle. Mr Doel said the guild may consider individual registration of teachers, for which it might seek the IfL's help.
Toni Fazaeli, chief executive of the IfL, said she was keen to be involved in the guild, but warned that it would be a mistake for providers to opt out of training teaching staff. "Our position is that we believe standards of initial teacher training are essential for quality and for learners," she said.
As well as setting professional standards, the employer associations said the guild offered the opportunity for more far-reaching reforms. "The real change is that we will actually take the lead in shaping the FE system of the future. In the past, we've been driven by the policies of the government at the time," Mr Hoyle said.
He even suggested that the collaboration might eventually lead to a single employers' organisation for the FE sector, bringing the private sector and colleges together.
"The logic points in that direction," he said. "There are still masses of differences. There are people that hang on to their public sector ethos - and there's nothing wrong with that. There are other providers with a very private sector ethos, and there's a third sector ethos, too. These things will be held on to for a long time. But behaviours in the different sub- sectors will be increasingly aligned."
But colleges are perhaps not so sure. Mr Doel said that while he agreed with his counterpart "95 per cent" of the time, there would be significant obstacles to merging the interests of colleges as independent charities and profit-seeking training providers. "It is a whole other step to have a single membership body for the sector," he said.
BUILDING THE GUILD
FE minister John Hayes first called for "guilds for the 21st century, creating a sense of pride in the occupations of today" in 2010.
The FE Guild will be the second such body to be established, after the Hospitality Guild.
The FE Guild is expected to take "end-to-end" responsibility for professionalism in FE.
It will offer voluntary individual and institutional memberships, with a "chartered" status for providers as a mark of excellence.
Photo credit: Alamy
Original headline: Suitors woo backers in their bid for `FE Guild' leadership