A test case brought by three primary heads has been rejected by an employment tribunal after one of the longest-ever hearings - 64 days. It ruled that they had failed to prove their case that their job involved "like work".
Local authorities were faced with shelling out around pound;500 million if the backdated claim against South Ayrshire Council, which was supported by the Association of Head Teachers in Scotland, had been successful. A further 660 primary heads in all 32 authorities would have flooded tribunals with similar claims, and deputes would have been expected to do the same.
The tribunal says it approached its decision, published in a closely argued 270-page report, by taking a job-evaluation approach. But, while it was unanimous in its view that the three heads had failed to establish "like work", it accepted that another hearing would be required to decide on the issue of whether the jobs of primary and secondary heads involve work of "equal value" which would entitle them to the same salary levels.
The AHTS, which is meeting its lawyers next week, seized on this and said it would form the next stage of its case. "The issue of like work is only one skirmish and we always recognised it was going to be a difficult one to win," Bill Milligan of the AHTS said.
Mr Milligan said one finding was particularly important - "we accept wholeheartedly that both sectors are equally important". He added: "This means the tribunal does not regard this judgment as the end of the matter and, if our claim on equal value succeeds, our case succeeds."
The three heads who raised the case were Paige Paterson, head of Girvan primary, Anne Nutt, head of Kingcase primary in Prestwick, and Stella Morton, retired head of Forehill primary in Ayr. They were earning pound;35,000 a year in 1998 when they first raised their action.
Their comparators - the heads of Mainholm and Carrick academies in South Ayrshire and Mallaig Secondary in the west Highlands - were earning pound;39,000, pound;47,000 and pound;36,000 respectively.
The tribunal generally accepted the case put on behalf of South Ayrshire by Ian Truscott, QC, that, even where work was "broadly similar", there were a number of differences of "practical importance" which justified higher earnings. These broadly endorsed the view that the job of a secondary head is more complex and wide-ranging.
Mrs Nutt fell at the first hurdle with the tribunal declaring that she had failed to demonstrate that her job was "even of a broadly similar nature", largely because of her significant teaching time.
In some respects, the tribunal appeared to feel that the two sectors are simply different. The management of the curriculum required "an intensity of decision-making" for which there was no equivalent in primary schools.
And the same was true in relation to the responsibility of secondary schools for preparing pupils for national examinations.