EVEN in a rapidly-changing and unpredictable world the Government's proposals on teachers' pay and conditions have caused a stir. The tension between the possibility - for the first time - of adequate pay and prospects, is matched against the uncertainty of performing to set targets.
The controversial and exciting Green Paper, of course, applies only to schoolteachers. The forgotten army of college teachers, and particularly those at sixth-form colleges, watches with interest. College teachers of 16 to 18-year-olds have become used to performing to targets - and without the rewards due to an achieving and respected profession.
In 1992 colleges were incorporated; that is they were made independent of local authority control. For those who have not experienced life in colleges since then an appreciation of what has happened might be useful. In essence, colleges have had to substantially increase participation post-16 and raise achievement while their funding has been greatly diminished. Between 1993 and 2000 there has been a 33 per cent increase in student numbers while funding has declined, in real terms, by 26 per cent.
The Government agenda for highly-skilled and well-educated 16 to 19-year-olds providing the base for national prosperity is in the process of being realised. The achievement agenda is as dearly-held in the college sector as it is in schools and, as a group, sixth-form colleges are constantly pointed to as one of the successes of the education system. This is a record of which we are justifiably proud. However, it makes slightly more salutary reading to investigate what this has meant to staff in these colleges.
The most striking impact of incorporation upon colleges has been the driving down of cost. Colleges have been expected to deliver year-on-year efficiency gains along with substantial growth. This has been compounded by increased management responsibilities under the new system. However sophisticated the system, there are a limited number of strategies colleges can use to deliver more for less.
The result across the FE sector has been that class size has markedly increased, as has the number of hours taught. Teachers find themselves on a different contract that demands more of them, particularly in terms of flexibility. From an accountant's point of view it has been very successful; achievement has been raised, growth has been delivered and the cost of the system has been driven down.
The reasons for this are easy to understand. Government figures, and research by the Association of Colleges, show that sixth-form colleges educate a typical three A-level student for pound;1,720 less than a GM school and pound;1,470 less than an LEA school. These unfavourable cost-comparators are compounded by the fact that colleges pay VAT on goods and services and schools do not. That colleges have been able to do this is a testimony to the dedication of staff who have borne the brunt of this and still delivered impressive and improving results.
This does them great credit as, unlike in the school sector, no provision is made for a teachers' pay rise. Colleges, therefore, have to fund their staff pay award from a yearly-decreasing budget and are unable to pay the going rate for teachers. Schoolteachers are currently paid better than sixth-form college staff at every point on the pay spine.
The Sixth Form Colleges' Employers' Forum has demonstrated that, for the first time, there is a significant migration of sixth-form college staff to the school sector. College staff who are accustomed to working under great pressure and coping well with additional responsibility are highly marketable. This college, for instance, provided three secondary deputy headships within one year. In addition, the regulations being proposed in the Teacher Training Agency's consultation document would restrict recruitment to the sector by cutting off the flow of new, well-qualified teachers.
The Government's desire to have an educational system which could be seen as the jewel in the crown is laudable and achievable. In most respects further education is the vanguard of this. However, there are serious problems that must now be addressed.
The ability of colleges to recruit will become a huge impediment to the sector being able to meet the Government's targets. It seems that the excellent work done in raising standards in schools has been recognised in part in the Green Paper, most clearly by the fact that a well-paid and highly-motivated staff is the key to success. Surely this must apply as much to the FE sector as to schools? With regard to the 16-18 age group, who are most easily compared with the school situation, the logic must be to have parity of funding. Should there not be a common funding stream for 16-18 education?
This returns us to the Green Paper which, in essence, appears to create a culture of continual improvement against a backdrop of opportunities for teachers. In FE the culture of continual improvement and continual growth, driven by external targets, has been in place for five years. Colleges' response has been predicated upon survival. Despite the debate over elements of the Green Paper, it offers some incentive other than mere survival.
The official FE responses to the paper have welcomed many of its aspects but, as a starting point for implementation in the FE sector, it needs to be recognised that the culture the paper seeks to engender already exists. What is lacking is the pay that encourages staff into the sector and provides incentives for them to remain. The phrase that has been crudely applied to the paper has been one of introducing payment by results. At present, in FE, the reality is results without payment.
Opinion Extra, page 18
Nick Brown is principal of Oldham sixth-form college