Uneasy peace in climate of change

12th May 1995 at 01:00
Ten years ago it was the college no one wanted. School reorganisation was supposed to create a sixth-form college. But a seemingly innocuous amendment at the full council meeting created a further education college instead, writes Ian Nash.

All hell was let loose next day. Teachers who are now top managers at New College, Swindon, stood on picket lines in defence of school status. They lost the battle.

But then, what's in a name? New College effectively became a sixth-form college, concentrating on A-levels. This was until 1993, when the Government decided to make FE colleges independent of local authorities. The muddle that marked New College's birth continued. The Department for Education said it did not recognise it as a college.

New College had a choice: revert to school status or change the student intake radically to qualify for independence. It chose the latter path, expanding with remarkable speed into vocational studies and recruiting 900 adults in 18 months.

Some staff now ask whether they would not be better off in schools. A number would, financially. Some - equivalent to department head - would be earning Pounds 3,000 to Pounds 4,000 more. Everyone is working longer hours than three years ago and most have more responsibility.

When the collapse of national talks on flexible contracts for lecturers opened the door to local bargaining, both sides agreed to enter talks. The result was a contract that very closely fits the model NATFHE, the lecturers' union, is seeking in talks through ACAS: a maximum 800 annual teaching hours and 37 hours of directed time with at least 30 worked on site.

An uneasy peace is likely to reign for two to three years - the time it will take to see how the workload goes and whether the Colleges' Employers' Forum contract would be any better or worse in practice.

New College has flourished under the 1993 Further and Higher Education Act. It is top of the exam league table for the South-west and has a name for sporting excellence.

With 2,100 students, including 1,200 16 to 19-year-olds, a diploma in HE and three degrees planned in association with the University of the West of England, New College had no trouble gaining FE status. But it lies in the shadow of one of Britain's larger colleges (a reason why some fought against FE status from the start) and all parties knew industrial action over contracts would have crippled growth.

Mary Sellers, the principal, says independence and the new contracts have brought tangible benefits. "In two years we have got to the point where we can market courses properly knowing we can pull in enough resources to run them." A vast improvement on LEA days, she insists.

The contracts in particular have brought stability in a time of change. There were redundancies, redeployment and big curriculum reforms which "could only happen because we were spared strikes and haggling over contracts", she said.

"We opted out of the CEF because I do not think it acts for the sector as it ought. It was telling us what the Government expects but there was no evidence that it was arguing our case."

She acknowledges with regret that the gap between staff and management has widened, even with a contract more moderate than the CEF's. "We are all under strain but it is a decent working atmosphere." However, she is looking for more efficiency and is "hoping to manage with the same number of staff".

College branch officers of NATFHE say redundancies are still a big worry and there is anxiety over ever-increasing class-sizes. They question where future efficiencies can be found. Also, the maximum 800 teaching hours is "increasingly becoming the norm", they say.

Gordon Nicholas, a language lecturer and NATFHE negotiator, said: "The biggest pressures tend to fall on the smallest departments."

This is a common cry from staff under a range of locally negotiated and CEF contracts. Keith New, NATFHE branch chairman at the college, said: "The majority of timetables in place this year are half way between the old provision and the new. The real figure for teaching hours is only now becoming clear."

The productivity deal gave them Pounds 500 plus a 2.9 per cent pay rise. But he is concerned that overall pay and conditions have been eroded. "Management guidelines on these and issues such as equal opportunities, sickness and maternity leave will reduce the role of the union in negotiations.

The staff felt "conned" by Tim Boswell, the education junior minister, who last year threatened to hold back Pounds 50 million in grants from colleges that had failed to introduce flexible contracts, but did not carry out the threat.

"We might have resisted local negotiations or taken a tougher line," said Mr New.

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