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Teacher pay and the power of positivity

Optimism surged through the profession last week after a teacher pay offer was accepted by union bosses, says Henry Hepburn


Last Friday did not mark the end of the long-running teacher pay dispute. Teachers will still have their say in a ballot on the revised pay offer, and strike action, in theory, is still possible.

However, such industrial action – which had been pencilled in for 24 April and would have marked the first teacher-led national strike since the 1980s – now feels a remote possibility, with the strike ballot (which was due to be sent out this week) having been suspended.

Friday afternoon was a turning point. There was a sense of catharsis in the online reaction after news emerged that the offer – 13.51 per cent over three years – had been overwhelmingly backed by the EIS teaching union’s council. The subsequent virtual high-fiving and backslapping was not in keeping with the generally hangdog mood of Scottish education Twitter in recent times.

While this moment is not likely to be as seminal as the McCrone deal of 2001 – which promised teachers a 35-hour week (don’t laugh), gave them guaranteed non-contact time and hiked pay by 23 per cent over two years – it could still prove highly significant. It was as if a boil had been lanced last Friday – but does this mean that Scottish education is now on the mend, or does the pressure point simply shift elsewhere?

The offer that will now go to teachers also includes commitments on workload, professional development and leadership. However, these are obviously less immediately tangible than a boost to your monthly pay packet, and teachers would be forgiven for reserving judgement.

Let’s not forgot that the EIS published a survey last June suggesting that 58 per cent of teachers would not recommend their profession. Some 85 per cent indicated that workload had either increased or increased significantly over the past year, and 90 per cent said they did not have enough time for professional learning. Numbers like that aren’t reversed overnight.

Even so, you’d have to be particularly curmudgeonly not to see last Friday’s developments as some long-awaited good news for the profession. The tone of this year’s annual education union gatherings, which all take place in the next few months, will be interesting. If, as looks likely, the pay issue has been resolved, where will unions’ energy now be directed?

There have been growing calls in recent months for a “reboot” of Curriculum for Excellence amid widespread feeling that the actuality of CfE is a long, long way from what was promised all those years ago. What would the architects of CfE – those passionate advocates of curricular choice, personalisation and equity – have said if you’d told them that, in 2019, MSPs would be holding an inquiry into the narrowing of subject choices in secondary? Yet that was the main business of the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee this week.

And what about teacher recruitment? McCrone and CfE promised a new world where teachers, released from the fetters of central control, would be free to decide what worked best for their pupils – this, surely, would attract many a young idealist and give Scottish education a shot in the arm. Yet teacher shortages have become a huge headache, especially for certain subjects and in more rural areas. Perhaps the buzz around the pay offer will attract some who would not otherwise have considered teaching; even so, it would take some time for schools to benefit.

For now, however, let’s not lose sight of the positivity that surged through the profession last Friday. The new pay deal, should it go through, may prove to be a temporary rush of optimism – then again, it could be the catalyst that reinvigorates Scottish education.

What we do know is that, come this 31 December, the big story of Scottish education’s year is unlikely to be about landmark strikes. So what will be the defining headline of 2019?


This article originally appeared in the 15 March 2019 issue under the headline “Positivity over the pay deal could reinvigorate Scottish education”