LAST July Education Secretary David Blunkett announced new money for sixth form and further education colleges to be spent on recruiting, retaining and rewarding good teachers.
On Wednesday he announced more money for colleges to reward good teaching and develop career structures - a total of pound;300 million by 2003-04. By then most teachers in the FE sector can expect annual salary increases of up to pound;2,000. There will also be new opportunities for career progression that could offer an additional pound;4,000 per annum on average.
As anyone who understands the sensitivities of pay in the further education sector knows, this was a bold initiative given the inheritance from the last government. When colleges became self-governing in 1993, it was necessary to change the restrictive practices embodied in the old contractual framework.
Lifelong learning must be delivered, however, whenever and wherever learners need it. The arrangements inherited by the new sector were unsuited to a key part of its mission.
But alongside such essential changes came excessive financial cuts to college budgets and the development of often deep antagonism between employers and staff. Morale hit rock bottom. The pendulum swung too far and we lost sight of the reason why colleges exist - to provide education to learners, which has to be done by those who teach.
FE colleges offer a rich variety of opportunities to teach in innovative ways, with students coming from all backgrounds. The diversity and inventiveness is probably wider than in any other part of the education sector, and forms part of its attractiveness as a place to work. But that will be lost if able teachers lose their incentive to stay in teaching as they gain experience and prove and improve their professionalism.
We will be investing up to pound;80m per year in professional developent and ensuring that we have a more qualified workforce. The funding we are now making available will swing the pendulum back.
We will reward excellent teaching wherever it takes place. We will re-establish the prospect of career progression for teachers who want to teach and not become managers, through new principal lecturer arrangements.
All colleges will now have the means to enhance the status of teaching, regardless of their individual finances. And they can also look forward to further initiatives to help them recruit high-quality teachers in shortage subjects. These will help the FE sector to redress the imbalance that has arisen following the introduction of new pay arrangements in the school sector.
This new emphasis on teaching is vital: the challenges that we have set the sector cannot be delivered without it. Learners will not stay if they are turned off. And they will have wasted their time if they do not achieve the qualifications they require for their own careers. So we make no apologies for linking a proportion of funding to student retention and achievement.
It is timely that the new pay arrangements coincide with the launch of the Learning and Skills Council. Mr Blunkett has made it clear that further education plays a key role in the nation's economic agenda and our social objectives for lifelong learning.
The FE sector will be the LSC's major provider of post-16 education and training. It will receive record levels of funding to deliver vocational and technical education to the same standards as academic education, enabled through new centres of vocational excellence. The LSC's success will mirror that of colleges in improving standards for all students. I look forward to seeing how colleges grasp the future now open to them.
Malcom Wicks MP is minister for lifelong learning