The right verdict on equal pay

16th August 1996 at 01:00
Jumping off a bandwagon is even more undignified than leaping aboard. When the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association lost its case for payments to teachers undertaking the work of heads of department, other groups which had sought to use the same legal device for pressing their claims were quick to back off. Unison, the local government union, left heads of pre-five centres to fend for themselves having previously supported their claim for parity with nursery headteachers. Special school instructors and senior staff in outdoor centres have also been looking for a leg-up using the SSTA's argument. They, too, must feel their hopes dashed.

On reflection, the decision by the Court of Session in favour of the former Strathclyde Region, which had strenuously resisted the SSTA, is one which the man on the number 23 bus passing the union's offices would have supported out of common sense. What is surprising is that two employment tribunals should have come to a different view and set the pound signs dancing in employees' eyes up and down Scotland.

The SSTA based its case on the Equal Pay Act. That entailed advancing the claims of women teachers. But of course not all teachers asked to take on a principal teacher's role are women. Men, too, might have been denied payments they felt entitled to. So there was no reason for the judges (or the tribunal adjudicators if they had thought logically) to conclude that gender came into the matter. The union had simply latched on to a convenient piece of legislation and put it to uses for which it was not intended. The Court of Session saw through the wheeze, much to the relief of the 12 successor authorities to Strathclyde which stood to lose up to Pounds 90 million.

Public sympathy is unlikely to be with the councils. The claims by groups alleging discrimination remain unresolved. In equity, a teacher doing promoted work should be paid at that rate. To the layman the head of a pre-five centre appears to bear the same responsibility as a traditional nursery head. No doubt other claimants have a case at least worth examining.

But Linda Marsh, the former Strathclyde official charged with protecting council interests, made a valid point when she said that claims should be pursued through long-established channels. Collective bargaining has survived in the Scottish education arena, largely because the unions have insisted. Yet there has been recourse to the courts in order to obviate cross-table negotiations.

The SSTA has discovered, however, that far from having its cake and eating it, a large legal bill leads to bread and water.

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