Further education heads, union leaders and politicians have expressed alarm over figures that show that the number of lecturers leaving colleges to take jobs as schoolteachers has more than doubled over the past two years.
The news came as a blow to college leaders, who have been striving to stem the flow of staff to schools with a series of pay deals designed to bring lecturers' salary scales more in line with those of teachers.
The figures, released by the government in answer to a parliamentary question from the shadow higher and further education minister, Chris Grayling, show that 540 further education lecturers took jobs in schools in 2002, compared with 300 the previous year and 210 the year before that.
Mr Grayling said: "If this trend continues, the impact on further education could be enormous. If colleges are losing experienced people at a growing rate, it is bound to weaken them. This is a tide that needs to be turned if we are to avoid the status of FE sinking even further below HE and schools than it has already."
Barry Lovejoy, head of colleges for lecturers' union Natfhe, said the figures showed that, despite recent advances on pay, there was "still a mountain to climb" towards bringing pay and conditions in further education up to the level of schools'.
He said: "Those figures totally support what we have been saying for the past three to four years about the importance of obtaining parity of pay scales between lecturers and schoolteachers. Hopefully our most recent pay agreement will help stop this haemorrhaging of staff to schools."
Union leaders are due to meet with further education employers later this month for their next round of pay talks. They have threatened to call local ballots for strike action on February 26 unless around 20 colleges that have yet to honour an agreed 3.5 per cent award for 2003-04 decide to pay up.
As things stand, the lecturers' pay scale ranges from £16,002 to Pounds 30,705, while teachers' pay, outside London, ranges from £18,105 to £33,150. The current round of negotiations could give lecturers an average 5 per cent increase, finally bringing their pay almost in line with that of teachers.
Sue Dutton, deputy chief executive of the Association of Colleges, described the flow of lecturers into schools as "worrying".
She said: "We have put in place the start of a modernising pay agenda, which will be completed by 2005 and will bring lecturers' pay up to the current levels of schoolteachers'.
"However, that agenda doesn't take into account rises in the school sector between now and 2005, and it depends on colleges' ability to pay."
Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, called on the government to unify the pay spine and conditions of further education lecturers and schoolteachers to help resolve the problem and encourage more lecturers to gain teaching qualifications.
He said: "The problem is that reforms in schools are not being mirrored in further education.
"That totally flies in the face of what the government has been saying about improving the vocational offer and attracting more people into further education. In order to do that you have to have the right, qualified staff. Further education will no longer have that if this trend continues."