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Sixth-form colleges are facing a recruitment crisis despite improving conditions. Daniel Hickey reports

Sixth-form college principals are racing to fill the estimated 400 to 500 new posts that will be created in September with the launch of Curriculum 2000. And they say that out-of-contract and new teachers are in a strong position to forge a new career path.

At present, newly qualified teachers cannot complete their statutory induction year in a sixth-form college. But this could change from September if the Learning and Skills Bill, at present before Parliament, is passed.

At Peter Symonds' college, Winchester, principal Neil Hopkins has already filled the equivalent of 25 full-time posts. But he is concerned that secondary teachers may be unaware of the job opportunities in his sector. "They tend to overlook sixth-form college ads," he says. "Yet it's qualified teachers that most sixth-form colleges wish to recruit."

He admits that the sector has struggled with 30 per cent funding cuts since 1993, but his outlook is positive. "Morale went through a dip, especially two years ago. But I would say that it is higher than in secondary education."

The reasons are simple, he says. "Students want to be here. And although it's hard work, especially preparing for Curriculum 2000, people who really want to teach can get a lot of satisfaction."

Jeff Holland, principal at Blackpool sixth-form college, expects to add eight full-time posts to a 70-strong staff, and received at total of 45 applications. But he sees difficulties in retaining staff if the gap between pay in secondary and sixth-form institutions continues to widen. Being excluded from the pound;2,000 pay threshold payment and from the discounted computer scheme has not helped. "Money has to be an issue. I think the realisation that the pound;2,000 is not there is only just dawning. Staff don't generally believe there will be a levelling-out of pay."

Sue Whitham, head of secretariat at the Sixth Form Colleges' Employers' Forum, says there is a lot of anecdotal evidence of secondary staff turning down jobs in colleges when they realise they will not get the pound;2,000 pay boost. "On average, sixth-form teachers are about pound;500 to pound;600 a year worse off, even before this," she says. "We've fallen behind by up to 5 per cent. I'm sure the intention to level up is there, when resources become available. That's the trouble."

Brian Howseman, principal of Luton sixth-form college, is more optimistic. "The Government has assured us that there will be transition in pay and conditions up to school levels. I'm saying to staff 'hold on, I do think things will get better'."

He admits recruitment is an issue. "Six or seven years ago, you'd have 20 or 30 applicants for a post teaching English or history. Now there are three or four."

But he says work in sixth-form colleges is often seen to be "a bit more interesting. Members of staff can teach a large number of A-level classes, and there are not the same discipline problems."

Andrew Reid, a design and technology head of department, made the switch from secondary to sixth-form teaching at Peter Symonds'.

"I was anxious to progress my career," he says. "I'm on the same pay as if I were in a secondary school, and I'm more autonomous. There's more chance of seeing my ideas through."

The opportunity to teach 16 to 19-year-olds also helped his decision to switch. "It's like the first year at university. Students are very enthusiastic and motivated. Class sizes are also much smaller - 15 to 20, instead of up to 30."

He admits that he misses the closeness he had with his secondary school tutor groups; now he sees a form group once a week "mainly for reports and writing references". But he enjoys the opportunity to specialise. "My teaching is more in-depth. It's really enjoyable. You can share your love of the subject and we have longer periods - an hour or an hour-and-a-half.

"Now I can teach, rather than police. At school, half my day was spent being a social worker."

Robert Richmond, a music teacher at Blackpool sixth-form college, also transferred from secondary education. "You are teaching at a more challenging level," he says. As for discipline, he says it's not an issue. "Students are bound to be turned off by some classes, but if they don't turn up, they are wasting their own time."

He sees Curriculum 2000 as a challenge. "There is total upheaval: new topics, books, modular exams. People are excited by what they see, but there is some trepidation about the unknown." But Mr Richmond is bemused at the exclusion of sixth-form college teachers from the pound;2,000 pay and other perks. "I have this faith that someone has just made a clerical error, and it will all be sorted out."

Julie Roberts, admissions tutor at Blackpool, has taught in secondary schools and in adult education. "I can compare what's it's like," she says. "Our students are scrumptious. I'm only teaching kids who want to do my subject and it's wonderful working with them to see them emerge as adults."

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