Colleges will soon have the most comprehensive picture of staff pay, recruitment and retention that has been available for seven years. Most colleges have completed the hugely demanding survey that will feed vital information to the Government's five-person pay team. Surprisingly, one question no one has asked, at least publicly, is "Why has this taken so long?" Given the diversity of the sector and the long-running debate on the need to re-professionalise staff, should not such scrutiny by the employers be an annual event?
Government officials privately admit to being horrified at the lack of such basic data. Malcolm Wicks, the lifelong learning minister, insists that, without it, he cannot share out the extrapound;50 million for FE staff that he announced last November. He says it should be used judiciously, giving just rewards, although he studiously avoids the phrase performance-related pay.
For senior college managers, the most authoritative study on their pay is published each spring by the Association of Colleges. This provides a clear guide to the "going rate" for equivalent posts elsewhere. Managers like it for many reasons, not least because the anonymity of the data allows fair compaisons. Reasoned discussion replaces acrimony and bleating.
What is sauce for the boss is sauce for the staff. The survey will help proper planning in this unpredictable recruitment market.
One problem, of course, is that this is precisely what the former Colleges' Employers Forum never wanted. Local plant bargaining, ruled by local market forces, was the political order of the day. This has helped create the mess and confusion not only over pay but also over training.
The Government demanded unprecedented growth on the cheap. Employers had to oblige. The result, as explained in the Further Education Funding Council report on staffing last month, is an army of part-time teachers, often of poor quality.
But the employers' forum is long dead and, with it, the worst aspects of confrontational industrial relations. Employers and unions regularly negotiate to seek constructive solutions to genuine issues.
The pay survey should be carried out every year, comprehensively conducted and should include support staff who were forgotten when the pound;50m was announced. The survey is great news, but it is only the first step in a very long journey.
Ian Nash FE Editor,'the TES'