We can't keep feeding fat cats

21st January 2000 at 00:00
LEAGUE tables are not generally popular in the sometimes hypersensitive world of education, and I suspect that the table of college principals' salaries (TES January 7) is no exception.

Like other league tables, it will almost inevitably become a permanent fixture in our landscape. The genie is out of the bottle. Personally, I see it as one of the most useful journalistic contributions that The TES has made for some time. Although the emoluments table will inevitably ruffle some feathers, long-term it may re-introduce order and, more importantly, natural justice to the current opacity.

My reasoning is simple. Colleges have, since incorporation, been persuaded, cajoled and bullied into operating in a more open manner. This has been accompanied by an efficiency squeeze, descriptions of which have been well rehearsed in these pages.

We are now, after years of sometimes bitter confrontation between management and staff, on the threshold of a return to at least some semblance of collegiality in these relationships. The one major obstacle to a genuine collegial spirit is the growing and sometimes unacceptable disparity between the rates of remuneration of principals and their staff.

It is clear from the tables published two weeks ago that there is no apparent rhyme or reason for the salaries earned by principals.

The TES reveals that principals of small colleges are rubbing shoulders with, or even eclipsing, chief executive salaries of some of the country's biggest colleges. This unevenness appears to me to be a direct consequence of governing bodies having no clear comparators when it comes to deciding their principal's salary. The often obsessive secrecy of the sector has meant that, until relatively recently, it required some real detective work to find out the annual package of the college principal.

This was usually the same person who had exhorted their staff to accept yet another year of pay restraint because of the stringencies caused by convergence, or other book-balancing imperatives. I do not view myself as some kind of Luddite in these matters - I think that it is reasonable for effective pincipals to be properly rewarded for what is an extremely demanding and stressful job. What I would like to see is some logic and pattern in the rates of pay, associated with scale, complexity and other variables like cost of living indices.

Instead, at the top end of the TES table, we see an extremely mixed bag of principals. Some genuine "movers and shakers", interspersed with a fair measure of mediocrity and failure. Further down the table we see many examples of demonstrable and creditable restraint, but again no discernible pattern.

I (and I know many others in the sector) found this anomaly particularly distasteful during the excesses of the Roger Ward era, and very few could argue persuasively then that it was anything other than a clear breach of natural justice.

Despite the fact that we have moved from the confrontationalism of that period onto the sunnier uplands of consensual relationships, this legacy will act as a drag on our progress as we attempt to establish our credentials in the wider bounds of the Learning and Skills Council.

We are moving again towards a form of national pay bargaining, and it would seem appropriate for college principals' salaries to lead the way. Most of us can clearly remember a time when there was pay relativity between the salary of principals and their senior colleagues, and this was reflected down the hierarchy. It may be naive to imagine that we can return to that model - they were not, after all, exactly halcyon days for the sector, and colleges are now far more complex.

What governing bodies need is some clear guidance, possibly from the Association of Colleges, on factors to take into account in agreeing the top salary. Unless we are able to demonstrate collegiality we cannot achieve the flexibilty from government we need to bring FE salaries up to the levels enjoyed in schools.

All of us can remember the national sense of scandal associated with the "fat-cat" headlines in the privatised utilities, and we have had enough bad press of our own not to need any more.

Robin Landman is an education consultant and a former college manager.

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