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Teacher pay under a Holyrood parliament;Opinion

Here is a test for the autonomy of Scottish education. Once the parliament is established, will teacher pay rises be decided on the merits of a case debated between unions and employers across the negotiating table, or will a close eye still be kept on what is happening south of the border? There are two considerations.

One is that with the bulk of funding coming in a Whitehall block grant, public sector pay levels will be expected to remain more or less equal across the UK. The second, contradictory point is that this is the fifth year in which councils have to fund a pay increase from their own resources and therefore the arguments post-2000 should be confined to a Scottish context.

In the inevitably tense relationship between Edinburgh ministers and the London funders the chances of Scottish generosity being allowed to prevail are slight. Indeed if the law of supply and demand were to hold sway, English teachers would outstrip their Scottish colleagues since the shortages appearing in the south are not paralleled here.

In this year's negotiations there are three elements - the teachers' claim of 4.7 per cent (which as always is in effect the claim of the majority Educational Institute of Scotland); the councils' desperate struggle to fix a budget that does not entail savage reductions in services or staff; and the award south of the border which is made on the advice of a pay review board to the Government. On the basis of the English pay review Scottish teachers would get 3.8 per cent, but the Government intervened to stage the award so that the unions say it is now worth only 2.6 per cent over the year.

The missing element in the talks at the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee is any input from the millennium review which councils are conducting along with the unions. It is looking at conditions of service as well as pay, but decisions this year will not encompass changes to hours of work or maximum class sizes. Therefore there is little flexibility.

Nor will the unions readily accede to changes which might create greater flexibility in the future. Privately they may accept that stipulations stemming from the seventies and eighties are out of date and expensive to employers. But history teaches that a temporary salary improvement arising from a committee of inquiry or from a "selling out" of conditions would be short-lived whereas favourable conditions would be sacrificed for ever.

Private industry has relentlessly driven through similar impasses. Imposed settlements are now the order of the day. Further education colleges, where pay and conditions arguments have become industrial disputes, are witness to the clash of private and public sector cultures. The millennium review is unlikely to establish common ground and therefore the changes sought by local authorities would have to be preceded by abolition of the SJNC. The Edinburgh government would then hold more sway, which in other respects is not a prospect welcome to councillors.

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