McCrone is the only way out of this mess;Platform;News amp; Opinion

5th November 1999 at 00:00
The Millennium Review's positive aspects are still valid and key elements of conflict can now be resolved, says Ross Martin

NO WONDER the teaching unions don't want to see performance-related pay introduced - the best they would manage would be 3.6 per cent for nearly 10 years' work at the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee. Industrial incompetence on that scale only ever had one result and so the members of the SJNC have clocked out for the last time.

Meanwhile, teachers across the country continue to work under the weight of a burdensome bureaucracy, careers blighted by a maniacal management structure and all for wages well below levels suited to the task society asks of them.

If teaching is to be modernised, providing proper development of the profession and thus encouraging a clear climate for raising levels of pupil attainment, then the positive spirit of the Millennium Review must be resurrected.

The dead hand of the SJNC, which has never delivered radical improvements to pay and conditions, was not likely to lift a magic wand this time and promote positive change. It is a defensive mechanism by nature with a built-in bureaucracy designed to frustrate any forward movement.

Indeed, the notion of collective bargaining by committee to deliver the required scale of reform is simply absurd. The scope of the changes which are necessary to address teachers' real concerns cannot be brought about within a meaningful time-scale by such a cumbersome mechanism.

Like a throwback to the industrial disputes of the eighties, the current crisis affecting our classrooms has become a blue collar stand-off between the stodgy, conservative defenders of the status quo and a progressive Government elected on a programme of modernisation. This simply cannot be allowed to block change.

Additional barriers to progress have been provided by the internecine warfare between (and in one case within) the different unions, paralysing their negotiators who, with a dramatic sense of self-parody, always turned up late, unwittingly symbolising their lack of urgency to make a real difference in the schools.

All this has happened as a demoralised workforce stands on the sidelines askance. Clearly it is time to move on. The task of tackling these issues now falls to the McCrone inquiry, under the watchful and surgical stare of Sam Galbraith, the Children and Education Minister, who knows a thing or two about performance and accountability - "mortality records of individual surgeons are a matter of public record".

The main areas of contention are those over which we had expected to negotiate hardest: the future of the principal teacher post, raising the composite class size limit and the management of non-class time for teachers. (It will not escape the reader's notice that these are the areas which most affect the individual members of the teachers' side of the SJNC.)

The proposals in the package relating to these areas were weak and ill thought out and lacked clarity in terms of implementation. This was partly because we had expected to spend more time negotiating over these points than anything else, thereby making the proposals more robust. This toughening up never happened.

These points must be addressed if the general thrust of the money-for-modernisation package, "enabling the recruitment, retention and reward of quality teachers" is not to be lost. Individual teachers, especially those most affected by the changes, must be convinced that the package as a whole is coherent and that the balance between personal gain and professional advancement is clear.

Resolution of these difficulties is entirely possible, perhaps along the lines of retaining the post of PT but widening the remit across a "faculty" or "mode", providing safeguards for small schools by lowering the composite class limit and realigning "in-service" days into a solid week of professional development, directed by subject specialist - "super-teachers".

The implementation of all of this should rightly be negotiated at a local level, with a national forum providing the framework, chaired by the minister and constituted on the tripartite basis successfully used for the resolution of the Higher Still dispute.

Alongside parents, pupils and other interested members of the school community, teachers should be able to play an effective part in the management of their working environment. Professional autonomy means taking control of your own development, playing your part in the team, sharing your skills with others around you. It also means accepting support from non-teachers to carry out non-teaching tasks, in and out of the classroom.

The recruitment of classroom assistants, the installation and use of information and communications technology and the involvement of many more specialists as in sport and music all combine to provide the level of support a profession requires to function effectively. Teachers should be no different.

The educational environment is changing for the better with the Government committing huge sums to both capital and revenue budgets (including more money for teachers' pay). This backdrop is much more positive than what we have witnessed for a long time, and surely will go some way to creating a climate for change.

None the less, Gavin McCrone has a tricky task ahead of him. He must seek a resolution in the best interests of the whole service which avoids blame and recrimination. His report to his boss must map out a way ahead which at least seeks to limit future confrontation. At the end of the day though, as we keep being reminded, the headteacher holds all the cards.

Ross Martin is a political consultant who was formerly education spokesman for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

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