There it was, oh sweet parity

9th July 2004 at 01:00
It was one of those conversations where everyone is talking and no one listening: a well-lubricated, late-night session, chewing over the recent election results.

"So what," I found myself asking, "has Labour done for me recently?"

"Try full employment, the minimum wage, shorter waiting lists and rising standards in schools," was the well-rehearsed response.

"No," I said, raising the decibel level another notch, "I mean what has the Labour party done for me in my job, in further education?" Before you could say Charlie Clarke's auntie, my Labour apparatchik adversary had come back with a cash figure of such magnitude you could only gasp at its enormity.

"All right," I responded, "I know the sums, but there's a funny thing about Blair's money. However many zeros there are on the end of the headline figure, colleges still seem to end up short on the arm and long on the pocket. And another thing," - this was intended to be my killer blow - "what have they done for FE lecturers' pay?"

My friend gave a little chuckle of the "how can you be so self-centred" variety. "OK," he said at last, "so now you're a floating voter. Tell me, what are the FE policies of the other parties that are so much better?"

"I... I... I..." I lapsed into uncharacteristic silence. The awful truth had dawned on me. I hadn't a clue. "But I'll find out!" I yelled defiantly.

And I did.

The fringe parties, I decided, should be cleared out of the way first.

Ensuring that no one was looking over my shoulder, I accessed the British National Party's website. Searching under "further education" got just two hits. One was an election candidate who happened to be studying in FE, and the other turned out to be a Muslim-bashing news story about training courses for imams. There was no sign of anything approaching a policy.

I moved on to the curiously-named "Respect George Galloway" party - an invitation I've found easy to decline ever since viewing that infamous TV clip of him sucking up to Saddam Hussein.

Respect managed only one passing reference to FE on their extensive website. Saddam Hussein, on the other hand, (or Sir, as the Respect leader likes to call him), merited 34 - and Gorgeous George himself 1,690 hits! From this I concluded that whenever the party gets round to forming an opinion on FE, you can be sure who will be at the heart of it.

Surprisingly, the UK Independence Party had a lot to say on education, most of it sounding like it had been lifted straight from old Daily Telegraph editorials. For UKIP the education clock seems to have stopped in 1967, and there was much inveighing against "flawed child-centred and progressive teaching methods". On FE specifically, they were similarly out of touch, managing only some risible platitudes of the "we support an FE system that responds to a range of needs and offers a wide variety of courses and opportunities" type. Wow!

And so to the Tories - those who haven't left to find their real home in UKIP, that is. True to recent form, the Tories' website was reluctant to let me in to any of their policies - on further education or anything else.

Maybe they realised that I would rather be cast away on a desert island with Saddam Hussein and Gorgeous George than vote for them.

Of course, many of us can't forget that it was the Tories who brought us incorporation. This, we have been told continuously over the past decade, has brought benefits to colleges too numerous to mention.

Strangely, though, these tend to have the same elusive qualities as those New Labour billions, with no one below the rank of principal ever able to tell you what they are.

Of the Lib Dems I had higher hopes. Weren't they the party that promised to soak the rich to pay for education? Bingo! My search of their website got 367 hits for "further education". And in policy paper 42 (all 36 pages of it) I found lots of good stuff about giving "every adult an entitlement to publicly-funded tuition to achieve up to an initial level 3 nationally recognised qualification, and an entitlement to an income-contingent loan for maintenance."

But what about our starting point: lecturers' pay? References to this proved to be trickier to unearth - particularly when a number of those 367 hits turned out to be about such things as the Middle East road map and bus fares for pensioners.

Then I found it, tucked away in a two-year-old press release by their shadow education secretary, Phil Willis. Under the headline "Meltdown in Further Education Sector" I read that good old Phil had been on our side all along, pointing up a pound;3,000 disparity between sixth-form pay and FE and declaring, "We must be prepared to have parity of pay and conditions."

There it was, then. Oh sweet parity! What is there to do now other than vote for Charlie and get the dosh? When is the next election, by the way?

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