FE lecturers have long been resentful about the superior pay of schoolteachers, writes Neil Merrick. Finally, the gap is closing

Not all lecturers may have appreciated it as they slipped away for their summer holidays, but there has probably never been a better time to teach in a further education college.

Leaders at the lecturers' union Natfhe are almost ecstatic about a pay agreement reached with employers last month, which should mean that further education staff move closer to their goal of pay parity with schoolteachers. Providing that the two-year deal is approved by Natfhe members in a ballot next term, an across-the-board rise of 3 per cent - from August 2003 - will be followed by a similar increase next August.

But Barry Lovejoy, head of colleges at Natfhe, says the real benefits are in the details of the agreement, which establishes the first harmonised pay scale for lecturers and other college staff. All staff will be grouped into "job families" and allocated eight points within the new pay scale. By moving up one point each year, lecturers should gain a further 6 per cent on top of any general raise. An experienced lecturer earning £26,868 now could see their salary rise 14 per cent to £30,705 by next August. "It will drastically reduce the time it takes to get to the top of the scale," Lovejoy says. "It brings us closer to schoolteachers."

At the bottom of the new scale, a newly qualified lecturer will start on £19,083, rising to £20,283 next August. This compares with £18,105 received this year by a new classroom teacher outside London.

But before everyone gets too carried away, the question most lecturers will ask when they fill in their ballot paper is whether colleges will actually increase pay in line with the new agreement.

Natfhe thought it had won a significant pay award six months ago when employers belatedly agreed to a 3.5 per cent rise for 2002/03. But, says the union, about one-third of colleges have not paid the full increase and lecturers in 12 colleges have received no extra money. "We will write to every college asking for a commitment to implement each year of the agreement," Lovejoy says. "There is a risk of dispute if that commitment is not given."

Lecturers in higher education were recently offered a 7.5 per cent rise over two years. Starting salaries in higher education are substantially higher at about £23,000 - but it is schools that FE lecturers compare themselves against. Although the Association of Colleges and the Association for College Management are signatories to the agreement, neither can force colleges to pay what - in some cases - they claim they cannot afford.

The roots of this year's FE deal can be found in a more-generous-than-expected funding increase announced in November by the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, as he launched Success For All, the Government's programme for raising standards throughout post-16 learning. By 2005/06, funding for further education and sixth-form colleges is due to increase by £1.2bn, or 19 per cent. But, like many schools, colleges have run into problems over pension and national insurance payments.

The AoC says many colleges have seen little or no increase so far and, by 2005/06, will probably only gain an extra 5 per cent. Still, Ivor Jones, the AoC's director of employment policy, expects most to pay up.

Jones describes the new deal as a "landmark agreement" that will help colleges to plan ahead, as they will know roughly how much staff salaries will cost during the next two years. Peter Pendle, the general secretary of the Association of College Managers, is also optimistic. "To get a two-year deal without any industrial action is a real achievement. With the new Success For All money coming through, the excuse for not paying will no longer be there."

The agreement is not just about pay. The creation of "job families" should pave the way for better training and development for lecturers. Talks will continue over the next few months over issues such as job evaluation and performance management.

A helpline for would-be lecturers run by the Further Education National Training Organisation has seen enquiries more than double in the past year. Tony Prideaux, the helpline's project manager, says: "In the past people expressed an interest in teaching older students, but their heads have been turned by the higher pay in schools. We now expect that distraction to reduce."