THE CURRENT discussions in the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee are the most important in at least 25 years. At a moment when every political party agrees that education is the key to economic and social progress and funding is being increased, there is a chance to reach an agreement that will begin the process of professional renewal. A shared vision for the future has never been more urgently required.
The public could be forgiven for thinking that teachers and their employers are close to open warfare. In fact, the SJNC's meeting at the end of January was a cordial affair during which a lot of common ground emerged. If there is no agreement about the way forward, at least there is some common understanding of the problems.
By common consent, the most obvious of these is pay. Over the years salaries have declined in comparison with average earnings. As a result, authorities are experiencing difficulty in filling some vacancies. Although the numbers entering training remain adequate, a general teacher shortage cannot be far off.
At one level, the reason is easy to see. Since annual pay awards were introduced in 1970, teachers have never - not once - succeeded in negotiating an increase that kept pace with the going rate. During this 30-year period, there have been three large pay rises but these have been imposed by committees of inquiry: Houghton, Clegg and Main. In other words, the only occasions on which teachers have done well have been when their negotiating machinery has been suspended.
On the face of it, the negotiating body has been of much greater value in relation to conditions of service. For more than 20 years Scottish teachers have benefited from, for example, clear limits on class sizes and an entitlement to preparation and correction time when their English colleagues have had neither of these.
From the employers' perspective, the existing conditions are a mixed bag. Some aspects have been helpful. For example, the class size maxima have helped education departments to resist pressure for budget cuts.
Other elements have been more problematic. The rigid subdivisions of the working week and year serve nobody's best interests. Staff development normally has to be scheduled during school hours and thus disrupts teaching. It will be impossible to achieve the Government's desired integration of extracurricular activities, summer schools and homework classes with mainstream schooling unless contractual arrangements change.
Of course, these can be portrayed as management concerns but there is a larger area of common ground than may at first be apparent. The present contract was shaped largely by the concerns of 25 years ago. Its terms were designed to cope with the acute teacher shortage and rising class sizes of the 1960s and early 1970s. They are not so effective in dealing with today's problems.
In recent years teacher concern has been with workload. This means primarily the demands of the series of national development programmes that began with Standard grade. These brought a heavy load of curriculum development in the initial stages and continuing demands in terms of prescriptive forms of assessment and reporting. Furthermore, they are just the most visible examples of a continuing tide of innovation. Teachers see no end and, in some cases, little benefit.
If this problem is to be tackled, two fundamental points must be understood. First, the prized conditions of service have provided no protection. Of course, it might be argued that, without them, matters would be even worse. This, however, is a counsel of despair, not a strategy for improvement.
Second, the root of the problem lies in the way that change is promoted. It is worth noting that Higher Still, which genuinely tried to learn from the lessons of Standard grade, has proved an equal source of dispute. More centrally produced materials and a greatly increased level of consultation have done little to help.
How many teachers really feel consulted or believe their views have been taken into account? Perhaps more important, how many teachers see any sense in starting the programme by insisting on changing the only part of post-16 provision - Highers - which was already broadly satisfactory? All directors will certainly have encountered teachers who were reluctant to take on the task of revising their Higher courses but would willingly develop Access and Intermediate courses because they could see the point.
Early intervention has been the most significant innovation of recent years. Already it has brought measurable gains in a fundamental area of learning. Yet there have been no complaints about workload. Bottom-up development in response to genuinely perceived need has much to recommend it.
Over the past month attention has focused on the management's offer. I happen to believe that it has much to commend it. However, it is not my aim to argue for any particular solution but to suggest the need for genuine debate. Quite simply, we cannot go on like this. Teaching is under severe pressure. Steadily declining salaries, loss of professional autonomy and the resulting fall in job satisfaction call out for new thinking. If we do not seize the moment, when will it return?
Teachers must have better salaries and career prospects linked not to promotion within a managerial hierarchy but to professional success. The introduction of a genuine para-professional support role should lead to a more specialised but not an ever expanding teaching force. Above all, we need a self-confident profession willing to embrace modernisation and take control of its destiny.
Keir Bloomer is director of education in Clackmannanshire.