Partnership can't work without the unions;FE Focus

18th June 1999 at 01:00
Thank heavens I've still got my EIS card. The new line from Downing Street is that trade unionism is "on message" and unions are back on the side of the good guys. This is the essence of the Third Way.

The Prime Minister's approach has a great deal of resonance for Scottish further education. There is no room whatsoever for either remote management or shop steward "bolshiness" (his term). The realities of globalisation, the technological revolution, high expectations on standards of public service provision and the centrality of the knowledge economy define FE like everything else.

The answer is partnership and there's a pound;5 million Partnership Fund to reinforce this truism. The fund will be launched when the Employment Relations Bill gains Royal Assent next month.

It is vitally important that FE in Scotland recognises the partnership agenda and, of course, takes its chances by bidding into the fund. I say this because we are perceived as having been "off message" for some time.

For example, the 1997 report from the arbitration and conciliation service highlights the problems of FE industrial relations unrest. The Educational Institute of Scotland has sanctioned more than 50 separate occasions of industrial action in the past two years. Successive ministers and a worrying array of HMI reports have alluded to the "problem" of management in Scottish FE. The new funding council's first task is, of course, a management review.

The modernisation process is well developed in the sector. New practices, flexibilities and working arrangements aren't untypical. We have an ever growing role in developing Scotland's knowledge economy. We have pioneered collaborative work with industry, the universities, local authorities, national bodies and international partners.

Yet we are still unable to agree a national protocol with our trade unions. I find this quite ridiculous. We are a sector for everything except salaries and conditions.

The partnership agenda is in the vanguard of the Scottish Executive's first forceful steps too. Sam Galbraith is assimilating in education his pathbreaking work as Health Minister - through which the NHS Partnership Forum was established. The forum is a joint initiative, involving Health Service employers and unions, which aims to advise and support the practical development of sound management capability and good employee relations in the health sector.

An FE partnership forum, based on a protocol, may be seen as a palatable alternative to the resurrection of national bargaining. Mr Galbraith intends to press his mission home. His first letter to Scotland's 3,000 headteachers identifies as crucial the need for them to work closely with their staff to raise standards and quality, promote inclusion and integrate technology.

Our own FE and lifelong learning minister, Henry McLeish, decided that his first meeting would be with the STUC before setting out a rolling programme of meetings throughout Scotland with employers and their organisations, with HE, with the National Union of Students, even with the Association of Scottish Colleges (see above).

And his message? He intends to engage business, the unions and those in education in a strong partnership to make lifelong learning a reality.

What we are witnessing is the "joining up" of Government thinking. We have been asking for this for some time. So it poses a duty on us to respond. Let's have a national FE bid into the Partnership Fund and let's start with the protocol agreed, perhaps, on a regional basis.

FE unions have shown willing in the promotion of skills development and equal opportunities through partnership. Many principals agree that a mature and trusting working partnership with the unions is necessary. The two sides should agree that management and staff have a mutual interest in college success, in sector success and, most importantly, in student success. They are all inextricably linked.

The challenge to all of us is to apply these values to the FE workplace - in the knowledge that it takes at least two to tango. The alternative is dancing alone or dancing with wolves.

Graeme Hyslop is principal of Langside College and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland. He writes in a personal capacity. His e-mail address is aghyslop

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