Editorial: New masters but the same old squabbles?

23rd May 1997 at 01:00
The Government is as intent on creating a new climate as on implementing + radical change. Will the new co-operative spirit spread? In particular, can it+ embrace the education authorities and unions? There are to be talks between + the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the teaching unions with the + aim of resolving a range of contractual issues. The mechanism for determining + pay, which the last Government sought to change, is only one point at issue and+ not the most important. The structure of the teaching profession and + conditions of service should be the real focus of debate. Both sides recognised+ several years ago that the changes affecting education have to include + teaching conditions. But the so-called "1990s review" foundered, as did a bold+ initiative by management to buy out national bargaining arrangements in + exchange for an 18 per cent pay rise. Had the unions responded positively, what+ would the Government have said since the proposal coincided with the 1992 + election campaign? Would local bargaining, which management favoured, have by + now produced worse conditions for teachers? Colleagues in FE, where local + arrangements hold sway, would say yes, but no one will ever know. Throughout + the last Parliament council and union leaders were happy to unite in condemning+ the Government for its parsimony, but they made no progress in modernising the+ profession. That is a principal reason for the previous Government's plan to + abolish the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee. Labour will want to see + action initiated by its representatives in local government and sympathisers in+ the union leadership. Otherwise it,too, will turn to direct intervention. + Meanwhile, there is a window of opportunity. Government announcements about + extra funding for schools, however modest, can only help create a climate in + which the authorities and unions contemplate changes. But the experience of the+ "1990s review" should guard against premature optimism. The interests of + management and the unions may be no easier to reconcile now than earlier in the+ decade. Rhetoric about creating a high quality, well resourced education + service for the 21st century will get the talks started. The reality, stalling + progress, is about very limited money and a legacy of mistrust. Overelaborate + promotion structures in schools and highly prescriptive conditions under which + teachers take classes belong in the past. Schemes of devolved management demand+ greater freedom of manoeuvre. Yet how can rigid restrictions on maximum class + sizes be relaxed so that resources are used sensibly at a time when the + Government is trumpeting a reduced maximum as a key political goal? Ideally, + relaxation of pressure on teachers would bring agreement closer. More money in + the system and a less demanding timetable for change, for example in Higher + Still, would make people less defensive. But abandoning cherished positions + will be difficult for the unions and councils struggling to cope with this + year's modest pay expectations will have little scope for longer-term + bargaining. Yet if there is no agreement, the Government may impose its own + ideas, and a Scottish parliament, with education as its most expensive service,+ certainly would.

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