The fighting has to stop

27th October 2000 at 01:00
Old grudges must be consigned to history if the profession is to make the move into the 21st century, says Ross Martin

OVER the past year I have been allowed a luxury that most public servants can only dream about - the time to take a step back from the heat of the battle and see things from a different perspective. This opportunity has allowed me a clearer view of the wider war that is being waged in the public sector, currently over pay and conditions across local government.

Structural rearrangement is being forced on a system that has lacked the emotional ability to change. After being all but down and out, punch-drunk from previous bruising battles, the public sector needs to move on to its front foot. It must modernise its mind-set in order to take maximum advantage from the post-devolution environment.

The socio-political struggle that has been industrial relations in the public sector for the past 20 years has been slowly grinding to a halt as the tacticians have worn each other down. Each initiative which has sought to make up ground lost by the protagonist's predecessors has been resisted with all the vigour that the defence has been able to muster. They have effectively fought each other to a suffocating standstill.

A change of tack is undoubtedly required. Our public servants must grasp the opportunity presented by the Comprehensive Spending Review and restore self-confidence in the services they provide. There is now a real chance to lead the public sector into a new era. But has the schools sector blown its chance to serve as an exemplar of institutional modernisation in Scotland and across the UK? Or can those involved now see things in a different, positive light and not through the prisms of past conflict?

The Millennium Review negotiations (which were about so much more than pay and conditions) could have served as a beacon. But those involved were unable, or unwilling, to leave their defensive dialogue where it belongs, in the last century.

The Chancellor's "money for modernisation" was in the bag. Teachers south of the border were looking to learn lessons as they grappled with performance-related pay. Nurses all over the UK were monitoring progress. The police, mindful of losing political ground (and with it, money) to education and health, kept a watchful eye over developments.

But the negotiations were dashed on the rocks of mistrust and suspicion. What "forces of conservatism" blocked the plans for modernisation and condemned teachers to a continued, energy-sapping struggle for more pay and less paperwork, contributing indirectly to the exam fiasco through the congested conduit of Higher Still?

The Scottish Council Foundation stirred debat on this recently, noting that educational provision in Scotland was built around a 19th-century industrial model (not just the buildings in which schools have been forced to operate) which hardly serves as an ideal framework for the 21st century. Modernisation, the SCF argued, is desperately overdue.

This applies right across the schools sector, from the structure of union representation (mainly promoted teachers with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo) to the overly formal, deferential, risk-averse culture which characterises the upper reaches of the statutory bodies.

Presenting the first annual lecture of the General Teaching Council for Scotland earlier this year, Sir Stewart Sutherland, a straight-talking heavyweight rated highly by more than one Prime Minister, was necessarily gentle on his audience (average age 50-plus). The message from the principal of Edinburgh University was a modernising one, but pitched very low key and delivered to a conservative professional body.

Where were the twentysomethings and thirtysomethings who should be driving influences on their profession? Who is challenging from within the paternalistic values, the cosy consensus, that characterised the Scottish state schools system for most of the 20th century? Where are the drivers of change?

Are the "modernisers" (innovators, enthusiasts and good practitioners all) in our schools disfranchised? Have they no representation in their unions or professional bodies? Have they no support among parents, pushing for them to have a greater influence over the direction of schools? Why was innovation and improvement stalled by the service itself?

Can the Parliament energise Scotland's educators as a prelude to tackling our other "industrial age" public sector institutions? Or will the Scottish Qualifications Authority debacle serve as "peas for the shooters" of the problem children who still populate much of the education establishment?

The real test will be the reaction to the McCrone proposals. This will determine whether the structural investment being made in Scotland's schools, transforming the physical environment in and outside the classroom, is creating a strong enough context for deep-rooted cultural change to develop.

In the negotiations will the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities be able to convince its teaching staff and their union representatives to make that leap of faith? It will require curricular stability. It must be based on a new professionalism. It will need the boost of a substantial pay hike.

But, as Anthony Giddens argues, co-operation must first replace conflict.

Ross Martin is director of the Scottish Forum for Modern Government.

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