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Lessons from Scotland

The process of negotiating teachers' pay and conditions needs an overhaul if the tidal wave of vacancies is to subside, writes employers' leader Graham Lane.

Despite the unions' decision to call a temporary halt to their industrial action, the threat of further disruption continues to hang over schools.

While teachers began their action over vacancies by refusing to cover for absences of more than three days in designated areas, the action soon developed into a dispute over workload. Almost inevitably, it then became a means of calling for a Scottish-type inquiry into conditions of service.

Employers saw this coming. That is why we offered unions talks over conditions of service, provided the action was put on hold. The unions replied positively but then the situation was complicated by the Department for Education and Employment.

The latest threat of disruption comes from the joint union campaign for a 35-hour working week. The National Union of Teachers, National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers and Association of Teachers and Lecturers all acting together is a very effective force. It will be very difficult for Education Secretary David Blunkett's successor to dismiss their complaints.

Nor should heshe. A 21st-century contract for teachers could mean improvements in both recruitment and retention. Workloads need to be reduced so that teachers can concentrate on being effective in the classroom.

We need an independent assessment of teachers' jobs to find out what could be transferred or done away with so that teachers can concentrate on teaching. As employers, we could respond quickly so that some new measures could be in place by September or shortly afterwards.

These could include: ways of funding schools which mean they need not have classes of more than 30; employing of classroom assistants in primary schools for all children, not just five to seven-year-olds; more administrative staff and a proper career structure for such people; and some way of dealing with cover for absent staff.

Payments for voluntary extra work when teachers cover for colleagues who have been absent for more than three days should also be considered, as should the banking of time off to be taken at a later date.

These measures could help in the short-term but in the medium-term we need a proper review of teachers' conditions of service. While I would not endorse all the elements of the recent Scottish settlement, it does offer us a useful guide.

The present conditions of service based on 1,265 hours over 195 days are unduly restrictive. The cottish system is much more imaginative. The limit on 35 hours a week does not include all the marking and preparation that teachers need to do, for instance. It deals with matters such as in-service training which can take place over 10 days when the students are not there, maximum class sizes and a limit on the actual class contact hours. Some of these could be applied in England and Wales but they would need to be adapted to suit the situation south of the border.

The Scottish settlement has come about because the employers and unions have negotiating rights. The removal of these in England by the previous government means that civil servants, in effect, decide the conditions of service for teachers. They then become part of a statutory framework subject to legislation. The Teachers' Pay Review Body recommends on pay but, of course, this does not deal with funding. Pay awards are rarely funded in full by the Government. This leads to a worsening of conditions of service, such as larger classes as fewer teachers can be employed.

As long as this situation continues, teachers are not going to see a coherent approach to conditions of service. Pay review bodies cannot handle that side of affairs.

The inquiry in Scotland rejected the idea of a pay review body because it meant local government and employers losing control of the funding of teachers' pay.

Civil servants' involvement in this leads to even more problems. National and local strategies need to be agreed. That is why employers would like to see a forum where these matters can be properly discussed.

The Government's role is to facilitate this. However, the detailed work needs to be done by employers and unions and not unions negotiating directly with civil servants or ministers. The teachers' situation is unique in local government. For staff social workers, environmental officers and classroom assistants. Conditions of service are negotiated between employers and unions.

Unless there is a properly-negotiated settlement over conditions of service, retention of a highly-motivated teaching force will not happen. Vacancies will continue to rise, especially in shortage subjects, and industrial action will return.

That is why employers need the third way - a forum to deal with the teacher unions on it bringing about a modernised contract over conditions of service for the 21st century. Its membership would include all the unions and representatives of the employers. Its recommendations could then be referred to the Teachers' Pay Review Body.

Graham Lane is the teachers' employers' leader.

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