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New talks may end log-jam

Council leaders claim 'significant breakthrough' as EIS joins ground-breaking inquiry

The teaching unions have agreed to enter what could be ground-breaking talks that lead to "a high quality, value-for-money education service in the 21st century". An announcement is expected today (Friday) when education leaders of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities meet in Edinburgh.

Elizabeth Maginnis, Cosla's education spokesperson, who also chairs the management side of the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee, says the move is "a significant breakthrough". A senior figure in the Educational Institute of Scotland admitted it was "a recognition that the current negotiating system is not working".

But the review, which will cover a wide range of issues, from funding to management structures in schools, will be regarded with deep suspicion in some union quarters if there is any hint of a trade-off between teachers' fiercely guarded conditions and pay.

While pay will inevitably be an issue if the talks get anywhere, both sides are at pains to stress there will be no impact on this year's salary round. A settlement for 1997-98 was due on April 1 but the SJNC is not due to meet again until May 28, a week before the EIS's annual conference. Many councils have constructed their delegated school budgets this year on the assumption of a 2 per cent rise. Any award above that may therefore have to be paid out of savings elsewhere by individual schools.

The last occasion when management and unions tried to resolve their differences in the SJNC came to grief on the eve of the 1992 general election. The unions refused to countenance the disappearance of virtually all national agreements, which would have been replaced by more flexible local bargaining, despite the offer of an 18.1 per cent rise and an indexing of pay to prevent it being eroded.

Both sides say this latest attempt to forge what is being billed as an attempt to take "public education into the millennium" will be less narrowly focused than the "1990s review" and will involve Cosla not just the negotiating machinery of the SJNC.

The inquiry will look at "the context, management and organisation" of education, including the role of a Scottish parliament. But it will bear less comfortably on the unions by scrutinising the performance of the SJNC including the extent of local bargaining between teachers and individual councils, one of the issues that sank the talks in the early 1990s.

The latest summit is a recognition that relationships between the unions and management need to move off rock bottom. A report to today's meeting of Cosla's education forum candidly admits that "the relationship in the past had been characterised by lack of trust and mutual suspicion and the scars of the abortive 1990s review were still evident on both sides".

The extent of the antipathy is underlined by the disclosure for the first time that the two sides met in conditions of great secrecy for an informal seminar at a hotel deep in the Perthshire countryside. Professor Alan Alexander, the local government expert from Strathclyde University, had to be brought in to facilitate discussions. Cosla believes the seminar was "highly successful" in clearing the air.

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