We must collaborate to make retention a sector-wide priority

Colleges can’t compete on pay with industry or schools, writes Sam Parrett. We need to work together to retain staff in the sector without undermining each other

Colleges can’t compete on pay with industry or schools, writes Sam Parrett. We need to work together to retain staff in the sector without undermining each other

30 Jun 2023, 6:43

In the 30 years I have been working in the FE sector, never before have I seen recruitment challenges on the scale we are currently experiencing.    

Of course, we are not alone with this issue. Both private and public sector employers in almost every industry are struggling to fill vacancies. The ONS reported in November 2022 that over 13 per cent of employers had gaps they couldn’t fill and that overall, there were as many vacancies as there were unemployed people (1.19million).  

But the great irony for colleges is that we have been deemed as the silver bullet to solving the country’s skills shortages – via the upskilling, reskilling and training opportunities we offer – when we ourselves are facing an extreme recruitment crisis.  

Sustaining high-quality provision on this scale is already a huge challenge. But when you throw in the cost-of-living crisis, the post-pandemic ‘great resignation’, long-term underfunding and a stark lack of parity with schools, the situation we find ourselves in is as unsurprising as it is relentless.    

 FE relies on the expertise and knowledge of skilled tradespeople and industry experts. Yet these professionals are in demand and deciding to move within their industries for increased pay, rather than going into teaching. 

This is an impossible situation that will only be solved by fairer funding. The fact that colleges are not exempt from VAT is a good example of the inequity within the education sector; an unfair anomaly costing colleges around £200m every year.  

Along with colleagues, staff and the AoC, we will continue to call on the government for better deals to support our sector, which is quite clearly essential to the country’s future prosperity. 

It is this disparity between schools and FE that is adding to FE staff’s feeling of being undervalued. A report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies highlights that while schools have seen teachers’ pay decline by between 5 and 13 per cent in real terms (which is bad enough and needs to be addressed), pay levels for FE lecturers have fallen by 18 per cent.    

The same report also reveals that school teachers earn 21 per cent more than college lecturers – with this gap having increased over time. 

The situation is as unsurprising as it is relentless

As CEO of an Academy Trust as well as a college, it’s clear to me that allteachers and support staff need to be more fairly rewarded in salary terms. 

However, such disparity within the FE sector specifically is unfair and wholly unreflective of the unique dual professionalism needed in FE – where our lecturers are vocational specialists as well as skilled teachers.

So, we are finding ourselves in a position where we simply can’t compete with many of the offers being made to our staff by schools and universities, both in terms of salaries and esteem. 

Further Education is a rewarding and incredibly impactful sector to work in. It offers a stable career, with lots of progression opportunities and generous leave. But this is no longer enough, particularly in a world where people are quite rightly demanding fairer salaries that enable them to fully provide for themselves and their families.    

A few years ago, I posed the question as to whether FE should have a ‘transfer window’, similar to the football model. It would mean an open culture in which staff could change jobs more easily, with colleges having greater flexibility to recognise and reward talent. I’m sure this would improve retention and outcomes – so is it perhaps something we should consider as a sector?   I’d be keen to hear from colleges willing to give this a go.

We need to work together, valuing all our lecturers and support staff equally and sharing expertise fairly in a way that benefits learners, rather than damaging their prospects.  

If we are to create a strong pipeline of dedicated teaching professionals and leaders in our schools, colleges and universities, we need politicians to listen, hear and recognise the unsustainable position we find ourselves in – and work with us to address it.

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