The Scottish Executive is set to announce today (Friday) a committee of inquiry into teachers' pay, conditions and promotion structures. The inquiry will report by April with an alternative to the current bargaining arrangements of the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee, which ministers are determined to abolish.
Sam Galbraith, the Children and Education Minister, is likely to confirm the inquiry after the expected emphatic rejection of management's latest offer by the membership of the Educational Institute of Scotland.
The result of that ballot was delayed from midweek until today, when the union's executive council meets in Edinburgh to decide on its next move. The executive is committed to pursuing an eight per cent pay claim for 1998-99, by industrial action if necessary. The employers have refused repeatedly to offer more than three per cent.
The Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association announced on Wednesday that 97.9 per cent of its members voted against the offer on a 72 per cent poll.
Mr Galbraith was determined to avoid a Government vacuum after the ballots. The swiftness of his response will confirm suspicions that a strategy to break the negotiating logjam has been in preparation for some time. The Minister's decision to remove his velvet glove goes even further than the supposedly "teacher-bashing" regime of his predecessor, Helen Liddell.
Mrs Liddell planned to consult on the future of pay bargaining, including the option of retaining the SJNC. But Mr Galbraith has quickly concluded that it is an "anachronism," a view revealed in a memorandum to the Cabinet leaked to BBC Scotland last week. "Whatever else happens, the SJNC should go," he wrote.
Ministers have also ruled out arbitration, which requires the consent of both sides. They fear it would produce the lowest common denominator of consensus, without the more flexible working conditions they want.
It is understood that Mr Galbraith and Peter Peacock, his deputy, are not enamoured of local bargaining either. They are keen to avoid discrepancies in pay rates in different parts of the country, which could make it difficult to attract and retain good teachers, one of their priorities.
Mr Galbraith's leaked memo shows he prefers a committee of inquiry because it is "more likely to inject urgency to addressing and resolving the issues, (with) substantial presentational advantages with parents and teachers."
Although the inquiry may recommend a pay review body, this was rejected as an immediate solution because it would be unlikely to have any effect until 2001.
This inquiry will be the fourth affecting teachers in 25 years. But its hands are likely to be tied by instructions to link higher salaries to a modernisation package. Ministers do not want an inquiry to result in soaring costs. Removing teachers' hours and larger composite classes from the management's current offer, for example, would land the Scottish Executive with a bill for an extra pound;35 million.
Mr Galbraith acknowledges that the inquiry's recommendations could not be forced on teachers without legislation. But his memo suggests they could have "moral force" and act as a model contract for new teachers, and teachers prepared to sign up.
There is an intriguing possibility that the SJNC, as an aspect of employment law, may be regarded as reserved to Westminster under the Scotland Act. The Executive therefore wants London to make an exception of the teachers' body so the Scottish Parliament can deal with it in the current education bill.