Devolved pay could be the 'lesser of two evils' for Wales

17th February 2012 at 00:00
Chancellor's plan for regional deals prompts unions' change of heart

It is one of the anomalies of devolution that power over education policy is totally devolved to the Welsh government in Cardiff, while control over teachers' pay and conditions remains in the hands of Westminster.

And perhaps more surprising is the fact that most in the education sector in Wales, including the Welsh government and all but one of the teaching unions, have been more than happy for it to stay that way.

But that could be about to change thanks to the Chancellor of the Exchequer's plan to introduce regional pay deals for teachers. TES can reveal that teaching unions in Wales are seriously reconsidering their historic opposition to devolution of pay in anticipation of George Osborne's plans being given the go-ahead.

"We have always resisted the devolution of teachers' pay and conditions because we thought Welsh teachers would be worse off, but I can imagine a scenario where it would be better to have powers in the hands of the Welsh government rather than pockets of regional pay or, even worse, school-by-school bargaining," said Dr Philip Dixon, director of teaching union ATL Cymru. "It may be the case that seeking devolution of pay and conditions would be the lesser of two evils."

The ATL is not alone - all the other teaching unions echoed Dr Dixon's comments. Anna Brychan, director of NAHT Cymru, admitted it was "something we are certainly going to have to talk about in detail, and soon".

"The whole situation is developing in terms of what is happening in England, such as academies and free schools," she added. "There may be a point when we would have to discuss whether we need to change our position."

But the government is staunchly against any such move. During last year's Welsh Assembly election campaign, Plaid Cymru, then coalition partner with Labour, sparked anger when it pledged to devolve pay and conditions in its manifesto.

Labour, which won the poll outright and now governs on its own, said this would undermine national pay bargaining, leading to poorer pay and conditions for teaching staff in Wales, and pledged to resist the move in its own manifesto.

Reacting to recent developments, a spokesman for the Welsh government said it had been "clear that it does not intend to seek the devolution of teachers' pay and conditions".

"We are very concerned at the proposal by the UK government to look again at regional pay and will resist any such move," he added.

Both of the larger teaching unions are clear that their major concern is to maintain the status quo and its national pay structures. NASUWT's Wales organiser Rex Phillips said it was time to step up the campaign against regionalisation and the efforts to "undermine" the national agreement on teachers' pay and conditions.

But he added that if the chancellor's plans were to go ahead, Wales should try to maintain the current arrangement at a national level.

The NUT's Wales policy officer Owen Hathway said: "We would never want to accept a situation where teachers in Wales could end up being paid less than counterparts in other areas of the UK for doing the same work. Naturally, with the agenda of regionalised pay that is being pursued by the Westminster government, this issue has come back into focus in Wales and it is something that we will have to monitor closely."

Welsh-medium union UCAC is the only union to fully support devolution of teachers' pay and conditions. Policy officer Rebecca Williams said it would be urging education minister Leighton Andrews to put in place a "plan B" before the regionalisation agenda takes hold.

Until now, devolution in Wales has been driven by a national urge to have more control over Welsh affairs. It seems ironic that it could be strengthened unwillingly and reluctantly because of unpopular decisions made in Westminster.

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