Gavin McCrone

18th March 2011 at 00:00
The retired economist talks about teachers' pay and conditions, his committee's greatest legacy, clock-watching and how those at the chalkface react when they meet him. Photography by Gary Doak

You were an economist when you were asked to chair the inquiry into teachers' pay and conditions in 1999 - did the experience change your view of education or the teaching profession?

I don't think so. I had been head of the industry department and then the environment department of the Scottish Office. When Donald Dewar asked me to chair the committee, he said it was because I didn't have any pre- conceived ideas. What did surprise me was the extent to which, under the previous regime, teachers' duties had been specified in the Yellow Book. I thought that rather demeaning for a profession to be told how to spend their time and tried to loosen that up. That is why I was taken aback by the agreement's emphasis on the 35-hour week, because I never saw that as a cap on the duties of teachers. They were working on average substantially more than 35 hours at the time of the report and still are.

Many said the greatest achievement of the eventual national agreement was to bring about industrial harmony in schools. How do you feel, now that the EIS and SSTA are balloting their members on industrial action?

There had been the Millennium Review, which the teaching profession rejected, and a threat of major disruption in the schools. It was against that background that my committee was set up. When I did my report, public expenditure was not tight the way it is now - we are in a difficult economic climate now. It would be very regrettable if an attempt to come down hard on pay and conditions resulted in a period of turbulence again.

What do you consider your committee's greatest legacy?

Peace and harmony for 10 years. But we also put an emphasis on classroom assistants and bursars to free up teachers' time, so they could spend more of it on teaching. And we also tried to keep up the quality of the profession through continuing professional development. Chartered teacher status was all part of that.

Many of your report's recommendations were not translated into the final agreement. Are there any, in particular, that you regret were not implemented?

Chartered teacher is one. In our report we went further and recommended advance chartered teacher and chartered teacher status, but the agreement only followed up with one of these. We said chartered teacher status should depend on them doing CPD to improve their skills, but also that they had annual assessments which showed they were actually good teachers - and the agreement didn't specify the latter. Chartered teacher status is not satisfactory if it just results in people collecting more certificates - they have to be good teachers.

You have suggested that teachers are prone to clock-watching. Why?

One got reports of that in relation to the 35 hours contract. I notice Ronnie Smith (EIS general secretary) says they didn't clock-watch, but I suppose he would say that. Once the agreement went through, there was a lot of talk about the 35 hours and teachers in England wanted the same - it was never supposed to be interpreted that way.

As an economist, how would you tackle the public sector funding problem, particularly as it relates to education?

I am one of those economists who think that the Westminster Government is trying to cut too much too fast and is in danger of pushing us back into recession or a period of very low growth. If we want the economy to grow and attract investment from overseas, we have to have a properly skilled and educated workforce. If we can make economies in areas such as administration - in local government, inspection or the Government - rather than cutting the number of teachers or chartered teacher status, that is where the cuts should be made. We wanted a classroom assistant for every three classes in primary and to introduce them for the first time into secondary. One of the complaints we got as we went round the schools was about discipline, and I think classroom assistants can help with that. It would be a false economy if they were cut.

How do teachers react when they meet you?

They are usually very pleased, not surprisingly. We thought the entry grade into the profession was too low and there was a danger teaching would not attract people of the quality and calibre and skills. When I presented the case to Sam Galbraith (then education minister), he quizzed us very closely. So when the agreement came out, I was a bit surprised that they got an even bigger uplift than we recommended.

Do you have any advice for Professor Gerry McCormac, who is chairing the review of the teachers' agreement, 10 years on?

I should like the new committee to have a look at what has happened since my report, consider how far its recommendations have been carried out into practice. We had nine months, but they have less than five and that might be pretty tight. They might have to ask for an extension - it is important this job is done well.


Born: Ayr, 1933

Educated: MA, Cambridge University; MSc, University College of Wales, Aberystwyth; PhD and Honorary LLD Glasgow University

Career: Economics lecturer, Glasgow University; Scottish Office civil service; visiting professor, Edinburgh University Management School; 1999, chair of inquiry into professional conditions of service for teachers.

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