AS THE McCRONE committee of inquiry into teachers' pay and conditions kicked off its consultation this week, the Educational Institute of Scotland today launches a vigorous defence of the national bargaining machinery. It says the Government's plans to disband the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee have shown a "calculated contempt" for the consensual approach that was supposed to be the hallmark of the new Parliament.
The union claims that SJNC agreements have predated many New Labour policies, such as class size reductions and protected time for teaching. It repeats its mantra that "the working conditions of teachers are the learning conditions of pupils."
Ronnie Smith, the EIS general secretary, suggests that the SJNC has had "an outstanding record in avoiding industrial conflict", pointing out that the last strike over pay and conditions in schools took place 13 years ago. The recent impasse between unions and management "stemmed not from a flaw in the procedures themselves, but from a particular management agenda on the way in which schools should be run."
The EIS also challenges ministerial arguments that the existing negotiating arrangements have failed teachers. The union notes that the SJNC, since its inception in 1981, has issued 160 circulars embodying agreements reached between the two sides.
Mr Smith says the McCrone committee has been bounced into a premature decision on the SJNC, thus calling its independence into question.
The Scottish Executive, however, has already made it clear that there is to be no turning back on its determination to abolish the SJNC. The McCrone committee has now taken this as a fait accompli. The committee asks for views on whether there should continue to be a single national forum for setting pay and conditions or decentralised arrangements.
Sam Galbraith, the Children and Education Minister, is not keen on local bargaining. His main objection to the SJNC is that its agreements are legally enforceable and that its remit goes well beyond pay and conditions, in effect laying down the law on issues such as class sizes. "The laws of the land should be made in Parliament," he has said.
The two options facing the McCrone committee are a pay review body for Scottish teachers or a non-statutory replacement for the SJNC, confined strictly to pay and conditions.
But the EIS argues that the legally enforceable status of SJNC agreements prevents "any maverick authority departing unilaterally from agreed standards".
Its submission adds: "The SJNC has secured a high level of consistency of salaries and conditions of service of teachers across Scotland. This has prevented financially better-off authorities attracting staff at the expense of less well endowed authorities."
Leader, page 18