An end to the bitter five-year dispute over contracts between college bosses and the lecturers' union NATFHE hinges on reaching an agreement to extend the maximum teaching week by three hours.
Hopes of a final settlement depend on the outcome of the union's FE sector conference in London next week and a subsequent ballot of the membership. A draft national agreement has been reached "in principle" between the executives of NATFHE and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the employers' representatives in the Association of Colleges.
The agreement removes the last vestiges of the Silver Book conditions of service which operated prior to incorporation in 1993. But it introduces new clauses aimed at preventing exploitation which have never before been included in a national agreement for colleges.
Both the employer and union sides have come under pressure from the Government to settle. Baroness Blackstone, minister for lifelong learning, in a letter to Sue Dutton, acting chief executive of the AOC, expresses her concern that the current consultations must succeed.
"This Government has made no secret of its desire to see more of a partnership between employers and employees in further education - The Learning Age (the lifelong learning Green Paper) makes it clear that the confrontational management style adopted by some corporations should become a thing of the past," said Lady Blackstone.
She accepted that the colleges had been forced to make efficiency gains each year and said that these changes had been necessary because of the contracts inherited from local education authorities on incorporation. But she added: "A national framework to replace the Silver Book is long overdue. This agreement thus cements what is a growing consensus about industrial relations in FE."
College principals and governors in the AOC have accepted the package in principle. It is also out for consultation to staff prior to the NATFHE conference.
At the heart of the deal is a maximum 27-hour teaching week and 880-hour teaching year. NATFHE wanted a maximum of 24 hours a week and an absolute limit of 850 hours a year. The narrow ground between the two will be aggressively fought over by hardliners at the union conference.
Officers also remain deeply sceptical over the weekly teaching hours. Paul Mackney, NATFHE general secretary, told The TES: "There is no way we can recommend 27 teaching hours a week on a regular basis. A young person might be able to manage it - with all the extra non-teaching work it entails - for a term or two. But there is no way it can be done for life." He is seeking guarantees that the limit will not be abused.
The national framework has measures built-in to safeguard local agreements. A policy principle states: "It is not the intention to disturb local agreements which fall within the parameters of this agreement and with which both parties to the local agreements are satisfied."
The NATFHE executive endorsed the action of the negotiators in reaching the draft agreement as the best that could be achieved through negotiation.
Gains made in negotiations include a new disciplinary framework, protection against harassment and bullying, formal complaints procedures to prevent victimisation and an appointments and promotions agreement which is more open to scrutiny.