I am a big fan of the AoC and have always believed a mature sector must have a pan-college body to argue on its behalf. However, I have always opposed the idea that such a body should even recommend, let alone tell me, how much I should pay my staff.

Independence is a cornerstone of college success, independence means being accountable for how you treat your staff.

Even the hint that the Chancellor might dismantle national pay rates has drawn both outrage and triumphal applause depending on your point of view. Both are inappropriate.

National versus local pay setting is a complex question and worthy of serious debate, mainly because we know it will change behaviours in ways that are hard to predict.

There are some philosophical arguments put against national pay. Shouldn’t the taxpayer expect the state to spend the minimum it can to get a job done?

If so, why should the taxpayer pay over the local market rate? If you believe in decentralisation shouldn’t that include pay autonomy?

In a typical year, two per cent of staff might be graded 4 and receive no pay award”

If you want us to look more like John Lewis surely that means organisations agreeing their own pay levels? If we have to compete with private providers not constrained in this way isn’t that unfair on good schools, colleges and hospitals who might lose out as a result and end up employing fewer people?

The economic arguments are usually couched in terms of the disparity to local market rates. For example, if an employer is constrained by national rates it can live within a given grant only by employing fewer people or a less high-powered structure. Pay freedom might enable a more effective mix.

The freedom to determine our own pay and conditions is seen as a key source of competitive advantage”

Similarly, it is economically rational for the brightest people in a low pay area to opt for their local public sector or move south to the private sector, in both cases diminishing the local private sector by starving it of that talent.

On the other hand if it led to lower public sector incomes in depressed areas it could make things worse by reducing consumption.

For fourteen years now, Bedford College has operated pay awards based on manager assessment (based broadly, but not slavishly, on personal objectives). Staff are graded 1-4, like Ofsted descriptors, and pay awards are different for each grade.

In a typical year, two per cent of staff might be graded 4 and receive no pay award. For staff overall though our average pay award has exceeded the AoC recommendation every year, and we believe in many years has been the highest in the sector.

Our pay scales exceed the equivalent school teaching scales, and overall staff numbers have risen from 250 to 750 over that period.

The freedom to determine our own pay and conditions is seen as a key source of competitive advantage. If we were faced with a choice to move back to national pay setting our Corporation would therefore vote against.

It is understandable that many public sector bodies feel uneasy or hostile to a change, but let’s at least have a full and open debate that acknowledges the benefits and drawbacks of such a change.

Ian Pryce, principal
of Bedford College