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Secret talks in bid to clear air

A REMARKABLE "warts and all" insight into what the three sides in the teachers' negotiations think of each other and how they plan to rectify their shortcomings has emerged from an "awayday" held at the end of October.

The secret meeting in Peebles was designed to improve the parties' working relationships and avoid the distrust which led to the breakdown of the "Millennium review" talks earlier this year.

The unions were told they do not provide their members with leadership and are "driven by them". But they point to the difficulties of laying the ground for what they want members to agree to when so much of the debate is conducted in the media. "We need to think how we manage the process," the unions admit.

The local authority employers are accused of taking a hard negotiating line and then conceding, but claim that "when we concede we really do concede". They accept they need to talk and listen more but add that "talking must be meaningful with an end result". They agree, however, that they must "share with the unions our vision of where we want education to be".

The Scottish Executive was urged to "stop treating teachers as operatives" and to raise the status of the profession. The Executive was charged with being over-prescriptive, announcing initiatives without giving schools time to implement them, developing simplistic targets, seeking information needlessly, excessive spinning, having clumsy mechanisms for distributing resources, saying new money is available when it is not, and undermining others.

The dialogue does appear to have succeeded in getting Executive officials to rethink some of their past approaches, and they plan to take the message to ministers, particularly about excessive initiatives. Jack McConnell, the Education Minister, is he latest in a long line to proclaim he intends to be a "listening minister".

The summary of the discussion notes that the Executive pledges to "develop our approach to consultation - your view (the other parties) is that you are getting documents but are not involved in developing the ideas.

"We'll try to work on new processes of consultation. At this stage we don't know what the mechanism might be. What we have now won't do. We need to talk to you about how to do it better."

The Executive promised more open discussion, to reflect on the impact of recent initiatives, and even "to visit schools to see what is impacting and moderate our behaviour accordingly". But it pleads that the Government cannot do it all alone and needs to act in partnership with others.

There was general agreement that all the players needed to talk more to each other, and in particular to demonstrate a commitment to teachers by involving them more centrally in policy-making. The agenda appears now to be shifting towards how educational change is handled, the preoccupation of the education authorities and unions for some time.

The general discussion noted that "in the past the emphasis has tended to be about compliance (whereas) it should be about the broad setting of general objectives and leaving it to schools to deal with the detail". It is unclear from the meeting note, however, whether the Executive agrees, although recent remarks by ministers suggest a move from central prescription to a national framework.

There was evidence that the air at the negotiating table has been clearer than in the past. The unions, said by the others to have been "insular and defensive", concluded that "this exercise shows signs of a better climate than we have had for some time".

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