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Council dreads nursery nurse equality

Many authorities believe that their under-fives would be best served by an integrated service. Linda Blackburne reports on a conference that considered the problems.

Strathclyde Regional Council fears it could have to pay out millions of pounds in compensation if nursery nurses decide to jump on a legal "gravy train" and claim equal pay with nursery teachers.

The Scottish council is preparing for a rush of hearings following the industrial tribunal cases of a dozen special-school instructors who claimed the same salary as their teacher colleagues. A decision on these cases is expected any day.

Nursery nurses are paid up to Pounds 6,000 a year less than teachers, and under European law, they would be able to claim five years of lost earnings if they won their case. Strathclyde has more than 2,000 nursery nurses and if they all took the council to court, it could face a bill of up to Pounds 60 million.

Most education authorities in Scotland have seen a stream of equal pay for equal value at work cases in recent years. Last summer nine teachers successfully claimed equal pay with school department heads in Strathclyde.

The so-called Wallace cases occurred because hard-pressed schools could not afford to create departments for relatively new subjects such as computing. The teachers believed they were department heads in all but name.

Strathclyde has 300 more such cases in the pipeline. In January, its appeals against the Wallace rulings were dismissed by the Employment Appeals Tribunal although the judge allowed the council to lodge an appeal with the Court of Session.

The council will also be fighting three nursery centre heads who are claiming equal pay with nursery school headteachers and it fears that its 2,000 nursery nurses will follow their example.

Strathclyde's problems emerged last week at a London conference on unifying social services and education departments for children under eight. Its difficulties will be compounded when it splits into 12 unitary authorities on April 1.

Sheila Cronin, head of special and community services in Renfrewshire - one of the new unitary authorities - said the nursery cases could cost the authorities millions, adding "there's clouds on the horizon in Scotland".

Strathclyde, like an increasing number of forward-thinking local authorities, has integrated its social services and education departments for under-eights. Traditionally, officers in charge, heads of centres and nursery nurses are paid less than headteachers and nursery teachers.

The courts have yet to decide who will pay compensation if the appeals are dismissed.

Sheila Cronin warned the conference delegates that they could face the same problems if they decided to integrate their under-eights departments. But Maggie Smith, head of early years for Manchester City Council, which also has integrated under-eights services, said: "We have left the pay scales where they are until it is sorted out nationally."

And Donald Shiach, a Strathclyde officer for the local government union Unison, said: "We have not been asked to lodge a claim on behalf of nursery nurses, nor are we under pressure to do so. This is a paper tiger invented by the Strathclyde region."

He said the threat of nursery nurses taking the council to court was regularly rehearsed in negotiations.

Strathclyde's "patronising" attitude had always been: "If nursery nurses claim parity with teachers, then we will employ teachers because they're better. " In any case, said Mr Shiach, a case could only be brought if there were a male comparator, and, as most nursery nurses and nursery teachers were women, it would be difficult.

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