It is a truism of fairy tales and labour demonology that iron-hearted employers sack people just before Christmas. Teachers will not face the dole just as the January Access bills arrive, but warnings this week make an uncomfortable start to the holiday.
Redundancies are in the air. Most areas of employment have endured similar rumours at some point in recent years. Many people have faced the reality of clearing their desk. But no one in school teaching, and hardly anyone in further or higher education, has been made compulsorily redundant.
Now, however, one of the few definite pluses of teaching - its security - is being threatened. No wonder there is anxiety coupled with threats from the unions, which must defend jobs however much their influence has been undermined by legislation and public opinion. The warnings from local authorities contrast with the secretary of state's assertion that more money is available for education. As we said last week, it all depends on which budget column you look at. Spending within the Government's immediate domain has indeed increased, and progressive reductions of supply to higher education for example have been halted. But there is no similar moratorium on bad news for councils.
Last spring the incoming councils by and large protected education during a difficult financial birth. Many warned at the time that the year starting next April would be even harder and that the education service, which swallows a large percentage of total spending, could not continue to be ringfenced. Michael Forsyth's allocation to local government confirmed their worst fears, and it is in response to council-by-council calculations that warnings to teachers are now being issued.
Some weeks remain before budgets are drawn up. In the past the worst threats to education have usually proved exaggerated. That may be the case again but no one should count on it. Certainly the unions are preparing for action, particularly in Glasgow and Edinburgh.
The Government would not welcome disruption in classrooms before an election. But if it happens, the finger will be pointed at the lack of manoeuvrability in the education service. On the one hand, the hardest-hit councils were unable to close schools. On the other, the unions refused to contemplate changes to conditions of service which might have prevented councils having to pay for staff whom they are stopped from deploying productively.
In other words, education has been left untouched by the changes affecting most areas of employment. If time has at last caught up on teachers, that is unfortunate but inescapable. The Government will use these points in its response to any disruption, and will seek to recruit parents to realism. No one wants strikes or a propaganda battle. The education service needs more money. If it can be made available, a review of cherished practices may be the price.