The birth of the lecturers' staff agency

7th November 1997 at 00:00
In December 1994 the Colleges Employers Forum held a meeting with Bowmer and Kirkland, a Derbyshire-based construction company. John Kirkland, the company's chairman, subsequently provided the initial funds for the lecturers' agency ELS.

The minutes headed "CEF Bowmer and Kirkland" give an update on a working party formed to examine the legal, organisational, managerial and financial aspects of a staff agency. The six members of the group included Geoff Lennox and Tim Parkes now both with ELS.

Mr Parkes was the former acting principal of Derby Wilmorton College, who resigned in the wake of the Further Education Funding Council inquiry into the college. Mr Lennox was formerly chief education officer of Derbyshire County Council.

Also present at the meeting were Melvyn Sheldon from Bowmer and Kirkland, later ELS, Sue Tonge (now Sue Dutton) of the CEF, Richard George of Open Systems Design and a representative from Coopers and Lybrand.

At the meeting a draft organisational plan was discussed. Legal advice was taken and "it was agreed [between] CEF and Bowmer and Kirkland (and their legal advisers) that the proposed model formed the basis of an operational model that will work effectively for the colleges". Thus were the beginnings of ELS.

The minutes show the early concerns the group had to ensure they would not be open to legal challenge about the way they operated. For example, the model they adopted, the minutes state, could not proceed if the agency simply "pays the lecturer" on behalf of the college.

"The agency must provide its service in a manner which removes all reasonable risk of the college being deemed to be the employer. " The model identified would, it was said, enable colleges to receive a proper and comprehensive service from the agency without any employment rights falling to the college. "The lecturers are effectively self-employed. "

Another concern was a problem that the colleges and the agency would have in relation to value-added tax. Roger Ward, though not at the meeting, noted afterwards that a meeting between John Kirkland and the then Chancellor of the Exchequer might be helpful.

Of equal importance was the possibility of a legal challenge on equal pay matters under the Treaty of Rome. This was a matter of concern as many part-time lecturers were women. The working group produced a business plan which included surveying 42 colleges on the market for part-time, temporary, hourly-paid staff, and also an assessment of the potential income from a range of colleges in different locations, and with different budgets.

In June 1995 Mr Ward wrote to Mr Kirkland. He said: "Had a most enjoyable visit to the new [ELS] Nottingham office last Friday. It is a first-class showpiece for ELS and everyone is working hard to make our enterprise a success." He suggests drinks at home and then perhaps dinner at the Savoy sometime.

In September of that year he wrote to Mr Kirkland: "As I reported to you, I have now had the opportunity to visit the office and discuss the current situation with the senior management team. I do want you to be assured that I am more than happy with the progress being made. It is true that the number of colleges to whom we are providing a service is lower than that which we might have originally desired. Having said that, it is clear to me that there are so many new aspects involved in the running of this completely new service, that we are far better running through this initial period with a number of colleges that we can safely manage.

"In fact I fear that so new are our systems, had we recruited many more colleges we would have suffered from overload and an inability to deliver the quality product which is our aim. The management team clearly have matters well in hand.

"The CEF will continue to promote ELS in a recruitment campaign which I can co-ordinate with Geoff [Lennox, chief executive of ELS] and the team. I see no reason why we should not be able to have 200 colleges in membership by September of next year. By this time the product will be refined and will have become widely accepted across the sector.

"The other role CEF will continue to play is to monitor and regulate any market competition. In reality those companies that have approached CEF would not, in any circumstances, have had our support as they clearly have not understood the market in which we operate."

In September he wanted to tell his members about the current state of affairs regarding temporary teaching staff. He asked ELS to provide a few bullet points "just so that we can keep the interest going".

In October 1995 he prepared to have lunch with Dominic Burke (see lead story, right) and Geoff Lennox. He wrote to Mr Lennox in advance: "We have in the past discusssed whether or not we ought to set up a division of the company, or indeed a separate company, to market a clerical staff agency to colleges. I wonder whether or not we should attempt some marketing exercise across the sector in this area? Alternatively, may we not be better off approaching an existing agency with a view to merging or buying them out. Has ELS given a thought to any of these matters?"

Then he asks whether ELS has given any further detailed thought to expanding its range of services in higher education. He suggests some names in HE who might be worth approaching.

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