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This Government means business;Opinion

There's only one possible topic this week for any serious observer of the scene. Not since 1986 have Scotland's teaching unions united behind the military metaphor and publicly contemplated actioninaction in response to the Government's stated determination to reform teachers' pay and conditions of service - in the interests of children and chalkface.

We've been here before, of course, with local authorities going to the brink in the early nineties to try to reform the inflexibilities bedevilling the system. They were faced down by the unions.

Former Secretary of State Michael Forsyth yearned to do what is now threatened - abolish the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee, now considered an "anachronism" by minister Sam Galbraith. Mr Forsyth had grit but lacked the ability to deliver. The situation is a bit different now.

For one thing, 51 per cent of Scottish voters in 1997 (and possibly a larger percentage of parents of school age children) chose the party sporting the slogan "education, education, education".

For another, most parents actually believe that their children's teachers do a professional job and deserve higher status and better pay. If they think about it at all, parents would probably agree that more attractive salary structures would help the profession attract top quality recruits.

Enter the first credibility problem for the average mum and dad. Many of them might be surprised that teachers could balk at the proposition of increases of between 10 per cent and 24 per cent - with an average of 15 per cent - over three years.

As for "conditions of service" - parents know that teaching can be stressful, but so can many other jobs offering less security and longer hours. A 35 hour week over a 39 week year looks pretty good to many.

Unfortunately for the unions, the arguments currently swirling around the detail of professional structures, absence cover, local bargaining and class contact time seem arcane mysteries. Frankly, to many, they are rather dull.

Ronnie Smith of the Educational Institute of Scotland may bravely opine that he is "confident that parents will recognise that the offer is fundamentally flawed and not in the best interests of their children".

But perhaps it is not as simple as that. Many parents may be aware through press dripfeed that the nineties have produced several reports, both Scottish and international, challenging the notion that Scots education is where we would all like it to be.

Something else is different this time. There are three active players in the ring - and it seems to be two against one.

This Government appears to mean business. It waves the banner of quality and standards, and has sworn battle against complacency wherever found.

Indeed, we now learn that that there is nothing to prevent the Executive overriding the will of MSPs in our fledgling Parliament. (Interesting one for tuition fees, that.) Then you have the local authorities, fighting their educational corner this time for all they're worth. Danny McCafferty may not be exactly a household name, but we're beginning to be aware of him, not least because he keeps telling us that COSLA has met every possible objection to the package which the unions can field.

Then too, COSLA claims that teachers on average pay have lost pound;50,000 over the past seven years as a result of the unions' rejection of an 18.1 per cent pay increase with index-linking in 1992. Spin or not, that's pause for thought.

This is a battle which will be decided in the public arena. The winner this time will be the grouping which takes the greatest trouble (and expense) to project successfully the whole picture, gain the support of the press, and woo and win the parental mind.

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