Consensus behind closed doors

1st October 2004 at 01:00
The joint submission from government and teacher representatives to the pay review body (page 1) is the latest - and most breathtaking - evidence of the new consensus that has been quietly formed to administer schools. The instinctively combative Education Secretary Charles "Bruiser" Clarke has shown himself to be even more instinctively a politician - an exponent of the art of the possible and assembler of alliances.

Contrast this with the confrontational approach of New Labour's first term.

Then, Chris Woodhead had to be retained to name and shame schools and convince voters that the Blair government was not in the pockets of producer interests in education.

The Government, or at least its education department, now seems to recognise that these suspect "producer interests" are the very people who can bring about better schooling. And starting with the workload agreement, government, employers and (most) unions have arrived not simply at a series of mutually-agreed compromises, but at a process for driving consensual change. Some even see it as a model for other public services, once the participants are ready fully to own up to it.

Only in the long term will it be clear whether the benefits are as mutual as the costs. But so far, the Government seems to have achieved wide agreement on workforce remodelling and heads have been promised much of the necessary financial support as well as the changes they sought in accountability measures.

Presumably, the teacher unions on the inside also accept that the gains are worth the pains. Even the NUT, outside the loop, is noticeably more muted in its responses. This week's pay submission includes a curious homily, as if to bolster the resolve of all who signed it: "Where all parties are seeking consensus it is necessary to recognise when the benefits outweigh any disadvantages".

But the confidentiality entailed in such closed-door negotiations may make it difficult at times for all concerned to convince their constituency members - especially when they find workload increasing where it should be falling and long-established salary safeguards jettisoned.

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