New masters but the same old squabbles?;Comment;Opinion

23rd May 1997 at 01:00
The Government is as intent on creating a new climate as on implementing radical change. Will the new co-operative spirit spread? In particular, can it embrace the education authorities and unions? There are to be talks between the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the teaching unions with the aim of resolving a range of contractual issues.

The mechanism for determining pay, which the last Government sought to change, is only one point at issue and not the most important. The structure of the teaching profession and conditions of service should be the real focus of debate.

Both sides recognised several years ago that the changes affecting education have to include teaching conditions. But the so-called "1990s review" foundered, as did a bold initiative by management to buy out national bargaining arrangements in exchange for an 18 per cent pay rise. Had the unions responded positively, what would the Government have said since the proposal coincided with the 1992 election campaign? Would local bargaining, which management favoured, have by now produced worse conditions for teachers? Colleagues in FE, where local arrangements hold sway, would say yes, but no one will ever know.

Throughout the last Parliament council and union leaders were happy to unite in condemning the Government for its parsimony, but they made no progress in modernising the profession. That is a principal reason for the previous Government's plan to abolish the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee. Labour will want to see action initiated by its representatives in local government and sympathisers in the union leadership. Otherwise it, too, will turn to direct intervention. Meanwhile, there is a window of opportunity. Government announcements about extra funding for schools, however modest, can only help create a climate in which the authorities and unions contemplate changes. But the experience of the "1990s review" should guard against premature optimism. The interests of management and the unions may be no easier to reconcile now than earlier in the decade. Rhetoric about creating a high quality, well resourced education service for the 21st century will get the talks started. The reality, stalling progress, is about very limited money and a legacy of mistrust.

Overelaborate promotion structures in schools and highly prescriptive conditions under which teachers take classes belong in the past. Schemes of devolved management demand greater freedom of manoeuvre. Yet how can rigid restrictions on maximum class sizes be relaxed so that resources are used sensibly at a time when the Government is trumpeting a reduced maximum as a key political goal?

Ideally, relaxation of pressure on teachers would bring agreement closer. More money in the system and a less demanding timetable for change, for example in Higher Still, would make people less defensive. But abandoning cherished positions will be difficult for the unions and councils struggling to cope with this year's modest pay expectations will have little scope for longer-term bargaining. Yet if there is no agreement, the Government may impose its own ideas, and a Scottish parliament, with education as its most expensive service, certainly would.

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