Don't blame the teachers;Opinion

1st October 1999 at 01:00
Judith Gillespie takes issue with Government claims that the unions have negotiated unreasonably.

How on earth did we get here? The advance publicity suggested the teachers' pay and conditions deal was in the bag. Yet it has been massively rejected by teachers, and we are now to have a committee of enquiry.

Let's start by putting the record straight on repeated Government claims that the negotiating machinery has failed. Teachers' pay has fallen behind not because of the negotiating machinery, but because it has been the policy of successive governments to hold down public sector pay. In these circumstances, the offer of a 14.7 per cent increase over three years is not generous. The net effect would have been to stop the relative decline in teachers' salaries, but not to improve them.

But given this Government's continued determination to restrict public sector pay - as demonstrated by putting just that in the remit of the "independent" enquiry - 14.7 per cent was realistically as good an offer as teachers were ever going to get. On its own, it would have been worth accepting. But the offer came with strings attached.

Much has been made of the fact that both sides were close to agreement on conditions. It is true they agreed that the current structure of promoted posts is too complex. (These posts are the product of previous committees of enquiry into pay, not the negotiating machinery.) Both sides also agreed on a new three stage structure - teacher, leadership grade and management. Both agreed that the senior teacher and assistant principal teacher role should go. Both even agreed that there should be a more equal distribution of leadership posts between primaries and secondaries. But this is where agreement broke down.

The teachers had a clear vision of what they wanted and based their leadership grade on the current principal teacher post. All PTs would have moved to the new leadership scale, with additional leadership posts created in primary schools. Moreover, the leadership grade would take over the tasks of the current PTs.

In contrast, the management's vision is very confusing. Their proposals begin by describing the leadership position as a personal grade acquired by satisfying agreed criteria. But they go on to talk as though it were a post to which teachers will be appointed. The number of posts was limited to the current number of principal teachers, and these were to be distributed between primary and secondary schools. This would halve the number of such promoted positions in secondaries.

Indeed, the existing managerial inequity between the sectors was reversed. A secondary with 60 staff could have expected only 10 leadership posts. A single stream primary with only seven teachers was promised two or three.

Worse, there was no clear view of how to fill the current principal teacher's role. This was to be left to collegiate agreement and further negotiation, at a time when principal teachers are crucial to the new Higher Still courses.

On the question of hours we again start from apparent similarity. The management states that "teachers' working hours will be 1,365 per year, within the context of a normal 35 hour week". The teachers' proposals are "within the parameters of a 35 hour working week". It would take a pedant to identify the differences.

Both sides also agreed that there should be a move away from a specific time allocation for tasks other than teaching, to give teachers greater autonomy and recognise their professionalism.

However, the management document sneaks in a "period not exceeding 50 hours, outwith the pupil year and day" for social inclusion work. Teachers now do such work - but on a voluntary basis. Compulsion, it would seem, is the death of good will.

The teachers' side shoots for the moon on class size. It proposes, for instance, a maximum of 25 in 5-14 classes throughout the school. The management offers a maximum of 30 for all classes, but then strangely wants an increase in composite class size. As there is no intention of altering rural schools where more than two year groups are taught together, the authorities claim the changes would affect only 900 classes. So why bother?

So close and yet so far. Whatever the outcome of the enquiry - and a clever Minister would buy the teachers off with a generous offer - local government has lost control of education. Once the committee reports, attention will focus on the Government's response, not on the authorities. The Government may then give education back to local government because councils are a useful buffer against the anger of parents. But everyone will know the Government is really in charge.

This cannot be seen in isolation. The proposal in the current Education Bill for HMIto inspect local authorities has been well aired and clearly implies central control. Rather less well aired are clauses allowing Government ministers to issue guidance which authorities must have regard to.

At first glance this seems no more than the present system. But it increases the onus on authorities to comply with that guidance. It is one step short of regulations. However, regulations have to be laid before Parliament, while "guidance" is the prerogative of the Executive.

The question of whether the Scottish Parliament or central Government would take over education is rapidly being answered in the affirmative.

Judith Gillespie is development manager at the Scottish Parent Teacher Council.

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