Teachers in sixth-form colleges are to stage a day of action to launch a campaign against deteriorating pay and conditions.
Strikes could follow after delegates at the National Union of Teachers signalled they have had their fill of redundancies, poor pay settlements and rising workloads.
The union says it will resort to strikes if a campaign of publicity and action is unsuccessful. And it will ballot for strike action at individual colleges where members are threatened with redundancies, pay cuts or worsening conditions.
The NUT hopes to build an alliance with other unions in post-16 education to press for better funding, class sizes of no more than 20 students and maximum 80 per cent teaching time per week. And it wants to see sixth-form colleges returned to local authority control.
The NUT blames incorporation six years ago, when FE colleges became independent, for creating a market in post-16 education which has led to a squeeze on staff costs, less job security and more contract working.
Teachers have seen their pay rise by less than their colleagues in schools. At the same time, student rolls have soared while staff numbers have remained almost unchanged.
Those trends have hit all FE colleges, but sixth-form college teachers argue they are different. "We are school teachers and we want to remain school teachers," one said.
NUT leaders fear that in the rush to cut costs and lay off staff, many colleges have victimised union representatives. Incorporation has left them vulnerable in a way they were not under local authorities.
The NUT has relatively few post-16 members and the sector has had a low profile at past conferences. However, this year it was designated a priority by the union executive, and delegates working in sixth-form colleges seized the chance to highlight their problems.
One member talked of hours up by a third and class sizes up by half in three years at his London college. Another said teaching time for her A-level courses had been cut by a fifth. Bill McIntyre from south-east Essex said A-level classes of 30 were common at his college while classes of fewer than 15 were considered uneconomic. Courses such as RE had been hit.
And Stockport delegate Andy Dixon said one of his members had been asked to teach two courses simultaneously - A-level Russian and Greek in the same room to two groups of students. "I was told by the management that I had no confidence in my colleague's ability if I thought that was a problem."
Executive member Jerry Glazier said conditions had deteriorated. "We have had some success in getting the message across to MPs and the Government. But the campaign needs to be stepped up with action in the summer term if we believe significant progress can be achieved."
The motion agreed by delegates toughened up the union executive's original proposals with the demand on class size and contact time and the threat of future strikes. It went too far for some - one member argued it could lead to unsuccessful strike ballots in individual colleges, leaving the union looking ineffectual.
Calls for a one-day strike instead of a day of action were defeated. The union will now consult its sixth-form college members about the day of action, to take place in the summer or autumn term.