Advice for a leading debate
Despite many talking shops, uncertainty continues about when or whether the Department for Education and Employment is going to set up the necessary group representing employers and employees known as the "lead body" to design a national vocational qualification for all further education lecturers.
The new Further Education Development Agency has just finished the first stage of the NVQ design by looking at all the roles and functions FE staff have to carry out. This might show that the training-based NVQs which some colleges already use for their part-time staff could fit the bill for all lecturers. The agency now has decide whether to recommend to ministers that a lead body should be set up.
But a detailed survey carried out for FEDA is likely to have confirmed that the activities of the FE sector are too complex. They go far beyond the confines of colleges funded by the Further Education Funding Council. They stretch into adult and community education, sixth forms, youth and community work, prison education, employment training schemes, and into partnerships with higher education and schools.
In the colleges alone, the workforce of full-time and part-time lecturers already numbers more than 300,000. Across all the diverse areas which further education covers, lecturers' work is hard to define. It is also fragmented by the rising number of temporary staff and those on different pay and conditions. So designing NVQs for this complex workforce is not easy.
And it is turning out to be extremely political. It is hard to show how much real difference there is between the functions of university and college lecturers and school teachers. Hence the difficulty of forming an FE-only lead body.
Meanwhile, staff development for the sector has long been in need of a total overhaul. Apart from the training which many lecturers get through the Certificate in Education, staff development budgets have not risen since colleges became independent two years ago.
Yet in spite of reports from college inspectors about the pressures of new vocational qualifications, very little is spent on updating and on helping lecturers cope with the new demands. In the uproar over new contracts for college lecturers, there is still no formal access to a proper framework of training which takes account of NVQ-style training, academic study and much-needed updating and continuing development.
Whatever FEDA decides to say to ministers, it should also be prepared to have extensive discussions about different qualifications and organising professional development.
Whether there is a lead body or not, the time has surely come to sort out professional development for everyone in the FE sector.
Kathryn Ecclestone is a senior education lecturer at the University of Sunderland.