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2 April 2001

A poor start for a brave new world

Francis Beckett asks if Britain's FE colleges, with their underpaid lecturers and champagne-swigging

By Francis Beckett

April 1 is supposed to be the day when Britain’s education system catches up with the 21st century. The Learning and Skills Councils, due to take over post-16 education on that date, are billed as the heralds of a revolution. But further education’s Thatcherite past threatens to derail its bright new future.

The councils are designed to ensure that we can learn anything we want, however old we are – essential in a world where people may need retraining several times during their working lives – and to provide basic skills to adults who missed them first time round. The government is also changing the careers service, so that young people between the ages of 13 and 19 will have a personal adviser, able not just to advise on careers, but to smooth their path from childhood to the world of work. We need a system that can make lifelong learning a reality, and the government thinks it has found one.

To understand how the dream might be undermined, you have to know a little about the recent history of further education.

Britain’s more than 400 colleges are the forgotten sector of British education. They are rarely noticed. While every development in schools and universities takes up acres of newsprint, only one national paper, the Guardian, runs anything substantial about FE – but in a special section so cunningly disguised by advertisements that only those actually in the business ever find it. Yet there are more students in FE in England – 3.7 million – than in secondary schools and universities put together.

The lack of public scrutiny may partly explain why the colleges have often been so badly run, with a national employers’ body – the Association of Colleges – which has been by turns sleazy, incompetent and self-serving, and an approach to industrial relations that would not be out of place in an Indonesian sweatshop.

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The rot began when FE colleges were cut loose from local authorities in 1993, and turned into privatised companies living on ever-decreasing handouts from the public purse. They were offered a carrot and a stick. The carrot was that they could enter into commercial deals with private companies (usually to train staff). The stick was that they had to make huge “efficiency savings” (cuts) every year.

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Instantly, harmless college principals, on modest salaries with a lifetime of teaching behind them, transmogrified into sleek-suited chief executives with luxurious lifestyles and salaries to support them, and management textbooks that told them about exciting ideas such as downsizing and chaos theory. The new era was epitomised by the head of the Association of Colleges, Roger Ward, who had a bottle of Pol Roger champagne delivered to the top table in a silver bucket as he told college principals that they were entering “a very different, more upfront world”.

Thousands of lecturers were made redundant. Salaries were screwed down to the point where, today, new schoolteachers are paid 10 per cent more than new FE lecturers. For senior staff, the pay gap is nearer 30 per cent. Many are worse off, because the Association of Colleges has a wonderful system by which it spends months negotiating a salary rise, but each college then decides whether or not to pay it.

Staff were bludgeoned into signing new contracts that required far longer hours. Colleges were encouraged to hire part-time lecturers by the day from a company called Education Lecturing Services. Often, the college itself finds the lecturers but, before it employs them, it forces them to sign up with this company. That way, it avoids any legal obligations towards them. This use of agency staff, according to Paul Mackney, the general secretary of the lecturers’ union Natfhe, tends to happen in the same colleges where principals get huge salaries and where commercial ventures show a cavalier attitude to public money.

There were a few major scandals and a host of minor ones. Ward himself had to resign after his financial dealings were exposed in the Times Educational Supplement. (Far from applauding this exposure, the association, for a time, refused to send press releases to the two journalists responsible.) At Halton College, hundreds of lecturers had to be made redundant to clear up the financial mess left by a disgraced former principal. At Doncaster College, the principal Terry Ashurst promoted his recently acquired third wife from being his secretary to his head of personnel, as well as clerk to the governors. Ashurst selected John Giddins, the Natfhe college representative, for redundancy. Giddins could appeal to the head of personnel (Mrs Ashurst) and if that was unsuccessful, to the governors via their clerk (Mrs Ashurst).

The current head of the Association of Colleges, David Gibson, does nothing to ensure that colleges at least pay nationally agreed rises. A ginger group of principals wants him to do more. Ruth Silver, from Lewisham College, said at a recent meeting that she was “ashamed at how badly teachers are paid in colleges”. Despairing of anything constructive from the association, David Blunkett has just launched his own pay initiative. It looks like being too little, too late.

Natfhe now looks set for a strike. Ward used to gloat about how he used the law to stifle Natfhe’s chances of running industrial action, joyfully rubbing lecturers’ noses in their own powerlessness. Gibson, in a rather more ponderous way, is trying to do the same thing. Instead of making some attempt to remove the causes of discontent, he is trying to entangle the union in thickets of law and bureaucracy.

He complained with a great show of horror that Mackney had written to all colleges announcing his intention to call a strike, even though, if Natfhe failed to do this, the strike would be declared illegal. In addition, Gibson complained that Natfhe should not be writing to individual colleges when negotiations take place nationally with the association. Yet he also insists that the association cannot negotiate meaningfully: only the colleges can decide to pay up. He wants all colleges to send their local Natfhe branches a letter that says: “We [the college] will consider any recommendation that comes out of that collective bargaining, but without any obligation to implement any such recommendation.”

It’s a catch-22, and no doubt Gibson thinks it is rather clever. But anyone with vision could see that it’s mortgaging the future for a little paper victory now. FE cannot do what the government wants it to do unless it has good teachers; but who is going to stay in FE teaching now, if they are good enough to get another job?

Meanwhile, the trickle of sleaze continues unabated. At Barnsley College, we learn, the principal set up several companies through which he invested college money in enterprises that included a surfing magazine run by his stepson and stepdaughter. There is not much surfing in Barnsley. The college betrays all the characteristics of the glittering new world: the principal was on a six-figure salary, and a third of the teaching hours were provided by Education Lecturing Services.

In the meantime, some of the better sort of college principals complain that their local Learning and Skills Council is behaving tyrannically. They act, so I hear, as though their role is to ensure that colleges do just what employers want them to do. If the colleges are not providing the right courses, the councils can commission some private company to do it.

This isn’t the way to run what is going to be the pivotal part of Britain’s education system. The idea that education in the 21st century will be provided by private companies such as Education Lecturing Services (which has set up a training division in preparation) should fill us with despair. But if the colleges cannot make peace with their staff and improve their image, they will remain for ever prisoners of their own grubby history.