Be sceptical about Gordon's pay vision

2nd January 2004 at 00:00
Gordon Brown has said he wants to see regional pay in the public sector and has specifically identified the National Health Service and education. So far there has been little debate over his under-reported intentions, but they need to be taken seriously: the "Iron Chancellor" is not known for allowing policy positions to rust.

Brown's proposition has considerable apparent logic. Housing and transport costs vary considerably throughout the country - factors long reflected in London weighting. The teacher labour market also differs sharply from region to region. Regional pay would be more philosophically consistent with local management of schools than a national statutory framework. It would probably return to local education authorities a bargaining role confiscated from them by the establishment of the School Teachers' Review Body - a change they bitterly resented. What the exact LEA role would be in regional pay deals is not at all clear (though "scapegoat" is a phrase which springs to mind).

It is inconceivable that a national body could, from the centre, determine local pay rates. From whom would they take evidence? National representatives of teachers' unions? And how would inter-union disagreements be reconciled?

And could country-wide LEA representatives - in the guise of NEOST (the National Employers of School Teachers) - reconcile internal political and geographic pressures and present to the review body an agreed view of a regional pay system that comfortably embraced the whole nation? Unlikely.

But even if that were in theory possible, the review body has minimal administrative support to help it conduct such a huge exercise, and Mr Brown would certainly not want to expand it. In fact his agenda is that it should be closed down for good.

What then follows? Let us start from where we are. The present national pay framework has considerable internal flexibility. It is not a one-size-fits-all structure. All the evidence is that, money permitting, it can be shaped to fit schools whatever their age-range, size or local situation. What is broke that needs fixing?

The review body may not be universally popular, but at least it has replaced the Burnham Committee's industrial turbulence (remember the 1980s?) with a long period of sustained calm. Possibly it could survive under the Brown plan, but only if it were (under heavy Treasury pressure) left the job of setting a minimum national rate. And although LEAs may feel marginalised by the body would they really want to re-assume a pay bargaining role?

Anyway, bargaining at local level does not automatically mean LEAs would do the bargaining. Even if they did, how would they broker deals between heads and governors, exerting their powers under local management of schools, and teachers' representatives? How would they fund deals under the cosh of threatened council tax-capping?

But suppose LEAs were taken out of the equation entirely, so pay deals were done at individual schools. Is that a power heads would welcome? Would they really want to spend swathes of management time on pay bargaining - and what would be the funding framework within which they could confidently operate?

The arguments for regional pay may be seductive, but the logistics of introducing it are forbidding. If Mr Brown wants a debate, he must provide more detail. Meanwhile, why kick a sleeping dog awake?

Peter Smith is former general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers

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