From the Editor - Reason has deserted the rebels with a cause

20th January 2012 at 00:00

Politics is a funny business. One minute, you're the toast of the town; the next, you're toast. One minute, you're dazzling the digerati with clever ICT talk of "open source Scratch"; a second later, you're the nation's commemorative mug after proposing to spend #163;60 million on a yacht for the Queen.

Michael Gove's reversal of fortune isn't unique, however, and his embarrassment is likely to be temporary. The same cannot be said about some of our teaching unions.

Six months ago, it was all so different. The unions led combined action against the government's pensions proposals. They trumped that in November with an even more successful strike. Most schools were closed. Ministers, alternating between threats and conciliation, were rattled. The unions, buoyed by widespread outrage, were united. They wanted more. And they got it. The government tabled a better pensions offer.

Soon after, the unions suffered that reversal of fortune that has so recently afflicted Mr Gove. The government sounds coherent, the unions look divided. Half of them, believing that they have got as much as they can get in the circumstances, are ready to do a deal. The other half are holding out for more (pages 8-9). Which is right?

The refuseniks claim that the deal falls too far short of their demands, that the government will have to deal with them and that one more heave will bag them even more. Each of those assertions is nonsense.

None of the unions would claim that the deal is perfect. Contributions will increase; the working age will rise. But documents seen by TES show that the deal isn't far from the position agreed by all the unions before negotiations. They wanted an accrual rate of 155, they got 157; they wanted a revaluation of 1.7 per cent above inflation, they got 1.6 per cent. With the government threatening to impose less generous terms, public support for further action soft and the economy tanking, the moderate unions felt that the only rational course of action was to settle.

Unfortunately for the profession, it seems that reason has deserted the rebels. Their defiance ultimately depends on their ability to persuade teachers to support more strikes. Yet their own internal communications suggest they are not sure that is possible.

The government is even less likely to play ball. It would be "incomprehensible", claims NASUWT's Chris Keates, for ministers not to have further talks. But why on earth would they? "George, we must placate the most militant union leaders," is not a proposal one can imagine Mr Gove making to the chancellor.

Even if ministers wanted to talk, they might have some difficulty finding Ms Keates. Incredibly, she did not turn up for a single pensions meeting with education ministers. Not one. Well, it was the run-up to Christmas, always a busy time.

The situation would be comic if it weren't so potentially damaging. In a nutshell, the rebels have split the union movement, walked away from a reasonable deal, handed the government a propaganda gift and confused their members in pursuit of a claim that has little chance of gaining traction and no hope of being met.

Not many people have made the Grand Old Duke of York look like a tactical genius, but it appears he has rivals for his reputation. Unless, of course, the plan was never to reach a settlement in the first place ...

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