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Towards a national framework;FE Focus

Sue Dutton, acting chief executive of the association of colleges

Colleges and the staff working in them are in the course of developing ambitious goals for themselves and their students. These ambitions have been partly stimulated by a new Government agenda which wishes to place colleges at the centre of reform in post-16 education.

But this agenda can only be carried forward if we can assemble a thoroughly modernised and versatile college sector - one which develops the logic of incorporation while adjusting to all the changes in our environment.

In this setting, it will be the job of our team at the Association of Colleges (AOC) over the next few weeks and months to consider the AOC's industrial relation policies.

We will set out to sensitise the whole sector to the new circumstances. The AOC board has, for its part, acknowledged how important an effective industrial relations climate is to national success and AOC is keen to encourage debate on how this can be achieved.

Our aim throughout will be to build an understanding of what actions are required to let a generally uniform system emerge.

We want all colleges to have a strong sense of ownership of and loyalty to their own industrial relations. It has never been our intention, and it never will be, to shoehorn existing practices into a single model.

1997 saw the brokerage, under the auspices of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, of a new contractual framework with the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, and agreements with all but one of our recognised trade unions on pay.

The AOC continued to provide sound practical advice via our bulletins, helpline and through our representations.

The latest analysis carried out by AOC showed that over 70 per cent of colleges have implemented the 199798 pay recommendations and a further 9 per cent are negotiating locally. There remains overwhelming support from colleges for national bargaining in its current form.

In carrying out my new duties I will not be attached to the past for its own sake. The sector's current industrial relations practices - in spite of the substantial progress being made - still bear the marks of an earlier, more disunited time.

In setting out to secure the best possible future of our colleges, their students and their staff, we are playing for high stakes. Those high stakes call for effective, realistic industrial relations at every level.

AOC's approach is guided by a number of principles: * Establishing and signing up to achievable and clear objectives in national negotiations about terms and conditions of service with the joint trade unions; * Creating an atmosphere in which industrial relations at every level emphasises partnership, collaboration, communication and, above all, action and results; * Recognising that industrial relations and, in particular, negotiations, are best undertaken by well trained professionals with strong policy direction and mechanisms which allow all members (not political factions) to ratify final outcomes and to sign up to them; * Enhancing the professional status of all staff in the sector by developing and supporting a further education national training organisation.

* Moving constructively towards the harmonisation of terms and conditions of employment for all staff across the college sector to include a single pay spine; * Meeting the challenges which have been created in relation to part-time staff, pensions, transfer of undertakings (protection of employment) regulations 1981, health and safety, bureaucracy, prison education retendering, mergers and rationalisation; lAccepting that the past is behind us and that we need to find new approaches to employment practices which will help ensure "feel-good" factors among college staff.

1998 could be the year in which all parties make a realistic appraisal of the constraints under which we operate, and tackle problems in a spirit of goodwill.

There is no need to second-guess the precise details of the Government's ultimate policy on post-16 education, the regions or rationalisation. We know that a measure of serious rethinking is inevitable on which colleges will play a major part. We can only respond to that inevitability by providing a credible service with a strong industrial relations climate and appropriate conditions of service.

The college sector must be able to demonstrate its capabilities to Government, to Regional Development Agencies and to industry in whatever new democratic and administrative bodies are established.

There will, of course, be things that individual colleges should be left, and indeed encouraged, to do. Our whole national approach to industrial relations should be driven by what is good for colleges, their staff and for their students as a whole.

AOC's central aim, at this stage, is to build solid frameworks that affirm the position of the college sector and its predominant role as the voice of post-16 education and training. We don't need to agree all the time on every detail in order to move forward. We do need to continue to develop national policy with local co-operation to the benefit of all.

The sector is developing many different agendas. All of them are rooted in the assumption that the conditions for a better future are now greater than they have been for many years. We cannot sit back and wait for better times. We have to look like a sector that believes in itself and that is prepared, at every level, including its national frameworks, to modernise in order to succeed.

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