Prisoners of the past

20th November 1998 at 00:00
It's time for the education service to rake up the dead leaves and consign them to the bonfire, says John Dobie

AS READERS of Jotter will be aware, my service in local government, in teaching and administration, has come to an end after nigh on 40 years. During my last weeks in Edinburgh's education department, I devoted a considerable amount of time to filleting the files on a range of national and local matters. While most material was consigned to the fire, some was retained as essential for historical research and future consideration.

I turned first to pay and conditions of service for teachers. Amid the mass of paper I came across three seminal publications. How many people remember the famous half-back line of Houghton, Clegg and Main?

Those looking for positive outcomes from the Millennium Review should note that these inquiries were the only ones to secure pay awards between 1970 and 1998 where the settlement was above the average earnings index.

The ineffectiveness of the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee machinery to deliver through annual negotiation appropriate salary levels and conditions of service has long been recognised. Primarily this was because the teachers' side has been reluctant to enter into the real world where exceptional pay awards are traded against outdated conditions of service that most people earning a living regard as highly generous.

The Main committee's report, despite becoming more prescriptive in certain aspects of conditions of service, did at least point to an agenda for change which regrettably has not been acted on in the past decade. Few will need reminding that the teachers' side has obstinately refused to become involved in the 1990s review instigated by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

As the management and staff sides gather this month to negotiate around the findings of the Millennium Review, it is worth recalling the obstacles to change which current pay and conditions of service have created. Little or no progress has been made in securing flexibility in relation to the working week and year. Teacher time is so narrowly defined that it has more zones than even Lord Archer has contemplated.

The subdivisions into class contact, non-contact time, planned activities, in-service days, parents' evenings and so forth need to be consigned to the dustbin. Similarly, restrictions on management discretion regarding absence cover, staff development, out-of-school activities and payments to reflect more fairly responsibilities and effectiveness need to be swept away. There are more demarcations in teachers' work than existed for riveters in the shipyards of the 1960s.

Not all the obstacles lie at the door of the SJNC. In the early eighties, when I was a relatively new member of the directorate, an incoming president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, wishing to be responsive to a rising tide of democracy among the association's young turks, invited suggestions for the theme of the next conference.

I somewhat diffidently suggested "Obstacles to change in Scottish education", and cited not only teachers' conditions of service and the School Code (Scotland) 1956, but also the rigidities of the General Teaching Council, the then plethora of examining bodies and the Government's advisers on the curriculum. The suggestion was noted but as in the past the president's choice prevailed.

The negotiators of the SJNC met in semi-secret conclave recently to take forward the findings of the Millennium Review. The teachers' side has to recognise that any further procrastination will push the management side and the Government to a position where the future of the SJNC as a negotiating body cannot be supported. Progress on conditions is therefore essential in what Pat Watters, a leading South Lanarkshire councillor, has described as "a last chance saloon" scenario.

Whatever the progress that can be made, it will be important that the future of the SJNC is included in the education White Paper. Hopefully, the paper will also address the GTC, given the overlap of its activities with the responsibilities of local authorities. The proposed merger of the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum and the Scottish Council for Educational Technology should also figure in a statement about change and modernisation.

During National Poetry Week I had occasion to look up Laurence Binyon's "The Burning of the Leaves". Perhaps Helen Liddell should take these lines to heart:

Now is the time for stripping the spirit bare,

Time for the burning of days ended and done,

Idle solace of things that have gone before,

Rootless hope and fruitless desire are there:

Let them go to the fire with never a look behind.

That world that was ours is a world that is ours no more

John Dobie retired at the end of last month as acting director of Edinburgh's education support services.

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