THE IMMINENT choice of Norman Murray and Pat Watters as president and senior vice-president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has fuelled press speculation that the stalled teachers' pay negotiation may soon be resumed. Education Minister Sam Galbraith's reported view that the future of the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee will be pretty much influenced by the outcome of these discussions means that the pressure is on...again.
Do I hear a loud yawn off-stage? Like me, I guess most people don't give a tuppenny bun whether the SJNC exists or not. But its future, along with the length of teachers' holidays, has become the make or break issue for too many Scottish children.
When I first joined the SJNC more than a decade ago, I was young and believed the propaganda of our own Lothian joint consultative group - led, in those days, by an equally young, but inscrutable Ronnie Smith - that the SJNC offered stability in turbulent times for state education.
But like most young people, I grew up. Ronnie, now general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, just got more inscrutable.
Stability came to mean stagnation and in the early nineties the local authorities proposed changes that were turned down flat as several steps too far in a climate of cuts and teacher denigration. The fact remains that the deal then would have boosted teachers' salaries by 18-20 per cent and would have protected the SJNC.
At the same time new initiatives were piling high and crucially a quality agenda was beginning to creep into view. I've had my doubts about some Government fads (foreign language teaching in primary, to mention only one), but nobody can take exception to the priority of raising standards.
The only trouble about that is that we need to measure things to know if we are indeed succeeding in raising anything.
We need to monitor children's performance, teachers' performance, schools, local authorities, HMI, the Government and, increasingly, parental performance. Early intervention, baseline testing, national testing, staff development, parental contracts, local authority inspections - the list goes on and makes daunting first reading.
But this isn't measurement for measurement's sake. Nor is it a machiavellian plot to add to people's workload. This is about delivering a world-class education service and is being matched by record investment.
Many of the consequences of the new agenda do create problems. It's undeniable that inclusive initiatives aimed at raising standards do require more flexibility in working time. How are homework clubs, study support groups or summer schools to be universally delivered otherwise?
It's undeniable that a teacher's performance does have a key effect on a child's attainment. How are we to reward the good teacher and make sure he or she stays in the classroom to pass on expertise? How do we support all teachers to maximise their skills and make best, efficient use of their time? How do we attract the best and brightest to become teachers in the first place?
These were the issues we tried to grapple with in the Millennium Review. To read the press reports of the breakdown in negotiations you would be forgiven for imagining there were no points of agreement between the sides but you would be wrong. On the last and longest day I asked EIS leader Malcolm Maciver, after many hours hammering out differences: "Are there any remaining points of principle dividing us?" "No," he replied. "Textual matters and points of detail."
I thought we had a deal. Several hours later and second thoughts began to emerge. Local versus national bargaining and holidays were the sticking points again. We left empty-handed.
So, as my good friends Norman and Pat pick up the reins I wish them well. Excellence fund money is being distributed apace, the new Scottish Government has already allocated what might have been its share of the millennium package to secure a deal with the Liberal Democrats, and local authorities are under pressure to pay a cost of living award.
Disentangle all that from the money originally available and the increase for teachers becomes vastly more modest. Of course, say critics of the modernisation process, it's not pay teachers are interested in, it's conditions.
Former Glasgow convener Malcolm Green brought us a story about a focus group of primary teachers. One declared that she hadn't come into the profession for what it paid. She'd come in for the holidays. Dolorously, Malcolm reported her sentiments had received a vigorous round of applause. As he intended, we were all mightily depressed.
In the original management offer, we proposed a different pay structure for teachers willing to work an extra 10 days to deliver the inclusion agenda. EIS negotiators wouldn't wear it. Instead, they proposed that the duties required by the inclusion agenda would be within the existing contractual year but delivered flexibly outside normal school times.
Puzzled, I asked whether they could sell that. Hadn't they been hammering on for years about teachers not having enough time? Wasn't their proposal just a scam? The EIS's May Ferries looked offended. Ronnie looked inscrutable as only he knows how.
Elizabeth Maginnis was chair of Edinburgh education committee and a leader of the management side in national negotiations with teachers.