Call me an untrained, untameable, free-loading sleaze-bag if you like, says Graham Jones, but please let me pay my staff properly.
All right, it's a fair cop. Courtesy of the most widely read edition of The TES's FE Focus in its five-year history, I think we've established that principals are paid well enough to put up with a few pressures. Since that league table of top salaries appeared - showing me as comfortably mid-table, I am content to reveal - I have received endless quips in the car park from staff ("Wash your windscreen, guv?"), a call from my bank manager asking for a loan, a begging letter from Rupert Murdoch and three offers of marriage.
I comfort myself that the salary levels show that governing bodies take a realistic view of what the job entails, even if the Public Accounts Committee thinks we are a bunch of untrained, untameable, free-loading sleaze-bags, to paraphrase a recent statement by its chairman. So, at the risk of being very unpopular, as opposed to just plain disliked, I suggest we have got it about right with the pay of the organ-grinders.
It's the people to whom we pay peanuts that concern me. The staff in my college are decent, committed people who have put up with much - including me - in recent years and not complained, too loudly, as demand after demand has been made of them.
They have been insulted, "rationalised", had their holiday entitlement reduced and their working week extended, implemented initiative after initiative and are now dealing with irresistible forces and immovable objects in the form of widening participation and raising achievement.
And now, on top of everything else, they are expected to rescue the nation from economic subjugation by nasty foreign competitors (or our overseas friends if we're after their students) and to make silk-purse citizens from the human products of some pretty sow's-ear circumstances.
It reminds me of a line in one of my favourite bad films, Flash Gordon, uttered by an impossibly beautiful woman in a fetching but impractical frock: "Flash, we have just 14 hours to save the universe." Fortunately for the universe she does not add: "Ibut we expect a 1 per cent efficiency gain while you're at it, and please don't bang on about a pay rise when you've done it." If she had, Flash might have looked round for a parallel universe to save.
Of all the reasons advanced for not funding pay awards in FE, the one that sticks in my craw most came from the Further Education Funding Council's chief execuive at the Association of Colleges conference. He told us it was being done for our own good. Not funding pay rises preserves the autonomy and independence of colleges.
A bit rich that and a brilliant extrapolation from Humboldt's belief that individuals should not be supported lest they lose the ability and will to look after themselves. Funding cost of living pay rises would produce a dependency culture. Much better, apparently, to let us have the dignity of deciding year on year how to make substantial efficiency gains alongside an unfunded pay rise - oh, yes, and save the universe.
Perhaps we should clutch at the straw of performance-related pay and reward only those staff the principal thinks deserving. That should create the right climate of common purpose and resolve for the good fight ahead.
The issue was encapsulated by one former principal who, on leaving her remuneration committee after a discussion on merit pay, uttered the immortal line: "If they think I'm going to be marvellous for 300 quid a year, they can think again!" At what figure is the line from insult to incentive crossed?
Actually, I am a supporter of performance-related pay so long as it is backdated. Since 1993 staff have achieved a 30 per cent improvement in performance at a saving in costs of 40 per cent, or possibly the other way round. Either way, it is a performance worthy of a few bob in anybody's terms and recognising it would sort out many of our besetting recruitment and retention problems as well as being morally right.
So please, powerful ones, think how existing money is thrown at favourite projects based on untested notions and remember the footsoldiers of FE. Think of them when you are planning expensive inspection regimes with inspectors on comfortable salaries running up huge bills for endless overnight stays in hotels they do not want to be in. Think as you plan to spend the pound;50 million saved by the new Learning and Skills Council. Remember them as you top-slice an annual pound;20 million from our budgets to fund the University for Industry which promptly spends pound;10 million on advertising - the marketing budget of around 50 big colleges, I guess. And consider them when you put money into piecemeal wheezes on quality or Individual Learning Accounts or whatever, all of which create new headaches for colleges.
Like all others, the FE army marches on its stomach and right now the poor bloody infantry is wasting away.
Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield College