England's elite sixth-form colleges have snubbed controversial performance-related pay reforms in schools by drawing up their own framework to determine teachers' salaries.
The overhaul of schoolteachers' pay, which came into effect this academic year, links salaries more closely with performance and ends the expectation that teachers should rise automatically up the pay scale each year.
Ministers said the reform would allow the best performers to be paid more and would "raise the status of the profession and contribute to improving the standard of teaching", but it has prompted fierce opposition.
Now the Sixth Form Colleges' Association (SFCA), which represents 93 institutions for 16- to 19-year-olds in England, has unveiled its first overhaul of teachers' pay since 2001. On most measures, the sector is regarded as the highest-performing area of post-16 provision.
Although some aspects of the school pay system have been adopted, such as the link between appraisals and pay progression, the SFCA's proposals mark a significant shift in approach. Its new pay scale retains spine points, meaning college teachers can expect their pay to automatically rise each year.
The "underlying principle" behind the process, the SFCA insisted, was that "teachers are assumed to be performing at an acceptable standard unless there is evidence to suggest otherwise". The new system would offer "a career path for individuals wishing to remain in the classroom", it added.
Crucially, the plans commit colleges to matching school pay for the first time since 2010. At present, college teachers at the top of the scale receive pound;600 per year less than schoolteachers.
The main teaching unions are consulting with members on whether they should accept the plans. "The proposed system has got a number of positive features compared with what's happening in schools," said Steven Crane, ATL national officer for pay and conditions. "The normal expectation is that people will progress [up the pay scale] unless there are concerns and the pay decision shouldn't come as a surprise. That is a positive."
Andrew Morris, head of pay and pensions at the NUT, welcomed the higher salaries on offer but said he had concerns about the formal link between pay and appraisals. "The retention of fixed pay points will be tremendously helpful," he added. "The SFCA has said to us the package isn't intended to reduce the rate of pay progression in sixth-form colleges. We'll be seeking our members' views on whether they believe that's how it would work in practice."
SFCA chief executive David Igoe said the proposals, drawn up over the past two years, were a "positive affirmation of the brilliant work that teachers in sixth-form colleges do".
"The unions are fearful that it might be used to hold back pay, but it certainly isn't the intention of the scheme," he said. "It tidies up a framework which was full of strange anomalies and uneven jumps from one stage to another. This now produces a very even and fair progression through the nine pay points."
The changes would be "cost neutral" overall, other than a small transitional outlay, and newly qualified teachers would receive higher starting salaries in order to attract more young recruits to the sector, Mr Igoe added. "With 80 per cent of sixth-form colleges already good or outstanding in Ofsted terms, one would expect to find at least that number of teachers performing at a really good and acceptable level," he said, although poorly performing teachers could still be denied a pay rise.
The final decision on the scheme will be made at the SFCA's annual general meeting next month.
Simon Holland, a geography teacher at Bilborough Sixth Form College in Nottingham, has mixed feelings about the proposed pay deal.
"There are elements that people might find difficult, such as that pay should be linked to appraisals," he says. "But I like the principle that teachers are assumed to be performing well.
"There are problems [in the current system] that need to be sorted out: if you get promoted from the top of the teaching scale to the bottom of the management scale, you would get a pay cut.
"The proposals are more positive than I was expecting. They show that having national pay negotiations, unlike in schools, works very effectively."