Employers' bodies explore the options

April 14, 1995

It is perhaps ironic that at a time when the further education sector has a pressing need to see the long-running dispute with Natfhe on lecturers' contracts settled as calmly as possible, the employers' organisations, or at least one of them - the Association for Colleges - raises the question of the future development of the employers' bodies.

Our primary need is to achieve a settlement of the contract dispute under the auspices of Acas and everyone hopes that the leadership of Natfhe will join in with the talks. It is clear that they should do so, that they have a moral obligation to do so no less strenuous than the obligation on governors to bury the hatchet, achieve change on a fair and equitable basis and go forward to allow the incorporated further education sector to achieve the goals and aspirations which everyone - employers and staff alike - share for it.

No one outside the sector can understand why a settlement has not been made months ago. The issues separating the parties - the weekly hours of attendance, the leave entitlement, the length of notice in a redundancy situation - whilst all-important, are not the stuff of great disputes. These items are minor in comparison to the final issue - the weekly regulation of class contract hours. Unfortunately, this has taken on a "not an hour on the day, not a penny off the pay" semblance. But in reality the distance between the parties is small. If needed, an annual hours agreement could be struck, also this could be phased in and arrangements made to deal with Natfhe's apparent fear that some managers might exploit some lecturers in applying the deal.

Tomorrow's issues are not these issues. Enough work has now been done on case loading to know that for tomorrow's world (some would say today's), a professional approach needs to encompass all the duties a teacher carries out in a complex learning situation and not just the class contact duties. That and reformed pay arrangements to produce a high quality, high productivity and highly paid profession, is what we should all be concentrating on.

Against this pressing need, the invitation to colleges issued by the AFC to consider the way forward in terms of the relationship between AFC and the Colleges' Employers' Forum might seem a modest sideshow, at best, and a distraction, at worst. But it will become important. Let us hope we have learnt something from the early history of incorporation. If we have, there are three salient points to bear in mind when contemplating the reorganisation of employers' organisations.

First there is no great urgency. It was probably never wise to have two organisations in the first place, but now that we have them, calm and measured approaches must be taken towards their futures. Second, there are not two national organisations, but three - the Association of Principals of Colleges is also contemplating its future and must have a place at the table in the discussions. In addition, there are a variety of regional bodies. If we are to make reform, we must build on the strengths of all these bodies and not make matters a power struggle between AFC and CEF.

Third, there are only two effective options - continued independent existence or merger. The other proposals of AFC, such as a new body to be an umbrella, or the winding up of both AFC and CEF to give way to another body, are Aunt Sallies not worth the knocking down.

If the issue is approached in a diplomatic and caring way, a solution will be found.

Keith Scribbins is chair of governors of South Bristol College

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