How to make friends and antagonise people

11th November 2011 at 00:00

Storm clouds are gathering, not just over the most vulnerable Eurozone countries, but closer to home. Scottish education is facing its first teachers' strike in a quarter of a century (p6). The threat of increased pension contributions and lower payouts on retirement has stoked the embers of protest as other changes to teachers' terms and conditions have failed to do in recent years. This is not some short-term pain to be endured in exchange for jam tomorrow; it is the prospect of chronic pain for the foreseeable future.

There is a sense of the absurd about the action threatened in just under three weeks' time - for the target of teachers' and indeed headteachers' anger is the Westminster Government. The strike, assuming it goes ahead and Westminster does not make significant new concessions, will affect Scottish local authorities who are the teachers' immediate employers and the Scottish Government, which represents the next tier. Although technically, the Scottish Government has a say in the regulation of Scottish teachers' pensions arrangements, realistically there is little it can afford to do to subsidise the pensions of its public sector workers in the face of the UK Government's determination to push ahead.

And so we have the Scottish Education Secretary saying he wants to campaign shoulder to shoulder with Scottish teachers over pensions but he doesn't want them to strike. In a further friendly overture, he is also siding with teachers by suggesting that this year's national agreement was wrong to cut the pay of supply staff (page 5).

Only a few months into the new session, the predictions that halving the rate for short-term cover would drive supply teachers out of business appear to be coming true. Mr Russell's solution appears to be to train more teachers. But haven't we been there before?

The employment picture is still far from settled - look no further than Aberdeen (page 7) - and Mr Russell might do well to bide his time before taking the risk of training more teachers for the dole queues.

He may, however, reckon he needs as many friends as he can find in education, for he is doing little to endear himself to the further education sector (page 5). What some might describe as "firm", others may see as bullying. Either way, college principals find themselves between a rock and a hard place: either they come up with their own blueprint for mergers and regional structures by next February, or Mr Russell will impose one.

All this he expects to be achieved without compulsory redundancies. Maybe the (voluntarily) redundant college lecturers will decide to retrain as teachers to make up the gaps in the school sector and everyone will be happy again. Or would that just be too much to hope for?

Gillian Macdonald is away.

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