THE Government is set to announce plans to begin consultations on the future of the teachers' bargaining machinery in Scotland. It is believed the forthcoming Scottish Office White Paper on education, effectively Labour's manifesto for the Scottish parliament, will set out a series of options for the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee.
These are likely to include the status quo, abolition, or removing the statutory basis of the committee's agreements which would then be voluntary. This would give individual councils more scope to strike local deals, a move that has been at the heart of the management side's ambitions for more than a decade.
The unions will argue strongly for maintaining national negotiations, particularly in light of the disputes created by plant bargaining in further education colleges.
The authorities claim the SJNC has not delivered adequate pay rises for teachers, who have fallen behind rates in England where there is a review body.
The unions, however, point to the protection the SJNC gives against what they see as gung-ho local authorities.
Such a backdrop does not provide an auspicious start to talks between the two sides which began this week during a special residential session of the SJNC in a central Scotland hotel.
The atmosphere was further soured after a member of the management side leaked an outline of its initial thinking on a pay-for-conditions package to The Scotsman, infuriating both sides.
The finger is being pointed at Ross Martin, education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. Mr Martin is education convener in West Lothian and is said to have ambitions to be the Education Minister in the Scottish parliament.
The management's goals, indicating an optimistic scenario rather than a bargaining position, include more staff development time - to be bought from shorter holidays (Glasgow has suggested a cut of five days) - longer weekly hours for after-school activities, an excision of middle management posts in secondary schools and more local flexibility.
In return, teachers would be promised above-inflation pay rises for the next three years, a shorter basic salary scale, conservation for promoted staff who fail to win posts in the secondary shake-up and an early retirement package for older staff.
But there remains a huge question mark over whether the Government will agree to fund such an ambitious package. The Chancellor made clear that extra spending on education announced in July was "money for modernisation" to be released from an excellence fund over three years, starting in April.
This fund is the only obvious source for any enhancement of pay and conditions. But it has been whittled down by other commitments, totalling pound;322 million (page three). The Government is therefore only likely to support changes which are substantial, while the unions will hope to restrict their scope.
The authorities say changes cannot be self-funding or achieved by raiding other budgets.
It is, the management says, "the last throw of the dice" and the future of the SJNC will be in doubt if no agreement can be reached.