The real price of a McCrone trade-off

1st September 2000 at 01:00
AFTER what I hope was a restful and invigorating summer holiday for teachers, stress on the first day back caused by the examinations debacle and its implications for pupils (never mind those who hope that they're still on track for the higher education of their choice) is perhaps not the ideal restart. But, leaving that immediate crisis aside, the politics of education are never static, and the stakes are high for the profession this millennium autumn.

I refer, of course, to the next steps for the recommendations of the McCrone committee with its far-reaching implications on pay, status and conditions of service, affecting the whole future of the profession, and the perception the wider public has of it.

There is no shortage of commentators making the point that McCrone underestimated the price of his package. The most recent estimates from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities point towards costs of pound;547 million over three years, as opposed to the pound;260 million calculated in the McCrone report.

There is likewise no shortage of politicians and establishment figures demanding that the Government bites the bullet and meets the bill, begging from the Chancellor if necessary. That is because this package of recommendations seems now to be widely considered, even in union circles, as being the last reasonable chance for modernisation without lamentation.

So we could be on the way. In September, Sam Galbraith - if not by then sacked as Children and Education Minister for the largest lash-up in the history of Scottish education - plans to chair an ad hoc McCrone implementation group. Its work will conclude at Christmas, and its recommendations will allow implementation in April next year.

There is, howver, a rather large roadblock in the way of those proposed and well-deserved pay increases averaging round 15 per cent for most teachers - together with the rest of the McCrone committee's pound;200 million modernisation programme.

Even as political and professional interests in Scotland home in on the possibility of the great leap forward, it would seem that the package and its implementation are threatened by a consequence of devolution apparently unforeseen by its architects in this Government - although they were warned.

It is a fact that the Barnett formula which determines the Executive's share of UK public spending is to be inevitably and inexorably adjusted in favour of equal treatment for our larger neighbour. Scotland's favoured funding status, defended traditionally by successive Conservative Secretaries of State is, as foretold, to be eroded.

The days when England ran its education system on two-thirds proportionately of what was made available for Scottish schools will soon be a nostalgic or shameful memory, depending on your point of view.

Applying the adjusted Barnett formula means that Scottish spending is due to rise by an annual 4.4 per cent over the next three years, contrasting with a real gain of 6 per cent for the same services in England.

If Scottish ministers want to offer the same boost to education as their English counterparts, they will now have no choice but to restrict any rise in funding for other services.

The real prospect of limiting funding increases for key public services such as transport, roads or police to around half those south of the border constitutes a dangerous political dilemma for the Executive, and a no-win situation in the popularity stakes.

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