Seismic shift has turned our world around;Further education

24th December 1999 at 00:00
ONLY when one has the luxury of time for reflection does the impact of the changes in FE hit home.

The six years since incorporation have been a roller-coaster ride, but as passengers we don't fully grasp the scale of the transformation because we are wrapped up in the minutiae of day-to-day work.

Two recent experiences brought this home to me.

First, as part of my work for the South AfricaUK Further Education Trust Partnership, I have been fortunate in escorting two South African delegations around UK colleges. In the course of these visits, we have been given potted histories of a wide range of sector colleges, and have seen the range and quality of provision with our own eyes. Through the eyes of my South African guests, rather than my own more jaded gaze, I have been able to grasp how much we, as a profession, have achieved in a short time. We, in the midst of initiative-fatigue, need to reflect on, and celebrate, these considerable achievements, but with the understanding that change doesn't stop here.

The second experience was my appearance on the platform of a high-profile conference, sponsored by lecturers' union NATFHE, on the FE sctor's response to the Macpherson Commission report. Prior to the conference, I reflected on the irony of me actually being at a NATFHE event at all, let alone speaking from the podium. Those of us who were at the sharp end of managing change in London in the early years of incorporation will know what I mean.

The conference was significant not only because it was another signal of the return of race equality to the mainstream FE agenda, but also because it shows the new maturity and changed relationships in the sector. A genuine rapprochement has taken place between staff and management sides largely because of the leadership of both NATFHE and the Association of Colleges. In place of counter-productive confrontation, we now have growing consensus and healthy pragmatism. This does not add up to some sort of Sixties love-in, but it does help create a better platform from which the sector can build for the next century.

If we are to build on this growing consensus, however, we must address the major obstacle of pay. There is a gulf between pay-levels at the top of our sector, and those at the customer end (and not just academic staff). The lesson that hit home as I travelled the country recently was that successful colleges are the product of a team effort, and not purely the result of strong, leaders. We have principals of colleges earning four, five or six times the annual salaries of the lowest-paid staff. That is not healthy for a public service - especially one which has been heavily squeezed in recent years.

The changes are heartening. For those of us who are genuine enthusiasts for FE they mean that we can put more of our energies into activities that improve our services to our students. As a former student myself, back in the mists of time, I know just how far the sector has really come. Also as a former "customer from hell" I am also consciou that even the best colleges have some way to go before they can truly say they are customer-focused. As we ratchet up the quality of our serivces, we also increase customer expectation, and the cycle will continue in that unrelenting manner.

The Government's twin agendas of lifelong learning and higher standards give us quite a challenge. I believe we are ready for it.

Robin Landman is an education consultant and former college manager

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