GOVERNMENT ministers are playing down the prospect of qualified teacher status for further education lecturers within five years, despite evidence that it would attract a better calibre of staff and boost the status of the sector.
In Northern Ireland, where the transition to QTS was managed within five years, FE lecturers have enjoyed a corresponding rise in status since it was introduced in 1994.
But, speaking at this week's launch conference for FENTO, the sector's national training organisation, Baroness Blackstone, the minister for further education in the Lords, ruled out such a rapid move in England and Wales.
Alan Clarke, divisional manager at the Department for Education and Employment, confirmed that that the minister was "lukewarm . . . if you understand QTS as something that enables teachers in FE to have easy transferability between sectors.
"You have to be careful in terms of setting a requirement from central government... you don't want to pitch it so high that it puts people off joining the profession."
But the experience of Northern Ireland suggests otherwise. Alex McLaughlin, of the University of Ulster, told the conference that now nine out of every 10 applicants for lecturing jobs had been graduates. All the others had professional qualifications and 32 per cent held master degrees or doctorates. "It didn't have the predicted effect of lessening applications," he said. "In fact, it had the opposite effect."
Graduates in the province can now achieve a diploma in further and higher education after a year of part-time study and can progress to an MSc within three years and a doctorate after six.
Mr McLaughlin said qualified teacher status had "provided a valuable link particularly for those who want to work in vocational delivery in secondary schools."
"Our experience is very positive. It promotes the esteem in which FE colleges are held within the broad community of education."
A year ago, in the Learning Age Green Paper, the Government said its aim was to ensure that all full-time FE lecturers and those with a "substantial part-time commitment" should hold, or have begun, a recognised initial teacher-training qualification.
At the FENTO conference Baroness Blackstone, said: "It is far too soon to talk about QTS within five years. We need to do some more thinking. We need to consider what the recognised qualifications should be; and how we define substantial part-time teaching."
But question marks remain over how the massive job of training and validating the skills of staff will be financed, although part of the FE Standards Fund - totalling pound;35 million this year and pound;80m next - will go to the task.
"We are discussing with the national partners the exact use of Standards Fund money, but we have clearly identified training for existing and potential principals and continuing professional development for teachers as one of the key activities for it to support," said Baroness Blackstone.
Beryl Pratley, senior inspector at the Further Education Funding Council, said that colleges' current level of expenditure on staff development was difficult to calculate but never more than 3 per cent of income. "That is really rather low, especially for a sector that is supposed to be about lifelong development," she said.