Can Labour make the honeymoon last?

13th June 1997 at 01:00
New Labour, new EIS. In the old days the general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland would not have had to reassure the union's annual conference and the press that the Education Minister was not in his pocket. John Pollock, for one, had bitter clashes with Willie Ross, his earlier mentor.

Labour has changed, as we all know. So has the EIS, which nowadays does everything possible to avoid outright confrontation. For some members, especially those in further education, it is not red-blooded enough. But the majority, as was evident from debates at the conference (pages four and five), accept that times have changed, that the legacy of union legislation from the last government places formidable obstacles in the way of strike action and that modest demands are all that can reasonably be put before hard-pressed employers.

The Perth meeting came too soon after the election for delegates to form a view about the effectiveness of the Government. Most no doubt voted Labour and did so with few illusions about immediate investment in education. Initial decisions by Brian Wilson have been welcomed by teachers. They may have been puzzled by why he needs a year longer to scrap nursery vouchers here than in Wales, but the further postponement of Higher Still and the scrapping of compulsory tests in the early secondary years have won virtually unanimous approval. The new relaxed approach to appraisal is also regarded as good news, although younger teachers may come to regret a loss of impetus for better staff development programmes, which ought to accompany appraisal.

Mr Wilson cannot always expect a fair wind. Criticism is likely to come from two quarters. There are those, mainly right-wing commentators, who believe that teachers will allow standards to slip and promote professional self-interest at the expense of pupils and parents.

From the opposite side there is bound to be concern that action does not meet aspiration. Already the unions have muttered about the need for future pay settlements to exceed those of recent years. The Government's promise to invest in education later in the Parliament will be tested as time goes by.

South of the border ministers have drawn a sharp distinction between supporting educational standards and teachers' interests. The EIS with its customary raft of conference debates on conditions of service affecting sectoral groups believes that the two should not be separated. Contented and motivated teachers are the key to higher standards of pupil achievement. The problem is that resources will remain inadequate for the task. Schools will have to live with unsatisfactory buildings and shortages, and teachers will still complain about their lot.

Can the Government rely on only marginal material improvements to spur on pupils and teachers? Initially, David Blunkett at the Department for Education and Employment thinks not, whereas Mr Wilson appears more optimistic. He has few carrots to offer but there is no stick either. Yet this week's international study of maths and science achievement among nine-year-olds (pages three, 20-21) shows that there is no room for Scottish "wha's like us" complacency.

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