Say no to Forsyth's big idea
There are many things of which you can accuse Michael Forsyth. Championing Scottish comprehensive education is not among them. So should we see the Secretary of State's wish to "recognise the excellent work done by Scottish teachers" by establishing a review body to examine teachers' pay and conditions as a positive step? The timing of Michael Forsyth's announcement, only weeks before a general election, is no accident. We are currently facing the most serious financial crisis ever to face local government in Scotland and a significant number of councils have already issued formal notification to the Department of Trade and Industry outlining their intention to make up to 6,000 local government workers redundant.
As the proposals will require changes to primary legislation, there is no prospect of a pay review body being introduced by this Parliament. The announcement is clearly both part of the pre-election manoeuvring taking place at the present time and an attempt to divert attention from the serious difficulties facing councils as a consequence of the Government's failure to provide them with adequate central support.
It is worth, however, reflecting on the state of Scottish education on the eve of the general election. We are in the 18th year of Conservative rule and yet the comprehensive system remains surprisingly intact. There is little doubt that part of the reason is that the education system in Scotland has traditionally operated on a consensual basis. Over the period of Conservative rule the genuine commitment of parents, local authorities and teachers to comprehensive education has ensured that the destructive elements of Conservative ideology have not been implemented, or have at least been blunted.
Scottish parents have not lost confidence in state education. The vast majority of parents send their children to the local school. Compare that to the situation in England and Wales where parents do not appear to have that same confidence.
The role of local authorities is not questioned. Despite all the propaganda and incentives to opt out of local authority control and the financial constraints that authorities have been under, opting out has failed to make any impact in Scotland. Compare that situation with England and Wales where there are about 4,000 different employers of teachers.
In Scotland, local authorities are the employers of teachers and play a key strategic role in the management of education. The role of local authorities is a strength of Scottish education. Local authorities can best reflect the needs of their communities. Most importantly in the democratic tradition of Scottish society, local authorities are accountable for their actions.
Compared with England and Wales there is greater cohesion among Scottish teachers. Not only is it the case that eight out of ten Scottish teachers choose to be in one organisation, the Educational Institute of Scotland, but relationships among the smaller unions and the EIS appear to be more harmonious than is the case south of the border. What needs to be recognised, therefore, is that in Scotland we have a national and cohesive education service which has the confidence of the Scottish people. An important element in establishing and maintaining that national service has been the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee.
For all the criticisms that have been thrown at it, it is a body that works. It is a body that has achieved a high degree of stability in industrial relations in Scottish schools while operating in a singularly difficult environment. The only major dispute it has had to deal with was in the mid-1980s. There is an attempt by Michael Forsyth and Raymond Robertson, the Education Minister, to rewrite history but it was the SJNC that resolved that dispute by producing a raft of agreements where the committee chaired by Sir Peter Main had failed.
A key element of the work of the SJNC is determining the conditions of service of Scottish teachers. One consequence of this aspect of its work is that we in Scotland are not dealing with the class size crisis that is seen in England and Wales. The point that needs to be recognised is that the working conditions of teachers are the learning environment of pupils. The agreements reached within the SJNC benefit both teachers and pupils. Against this background what would be the impact of a teacher review body?
It is important to establish what such a body would do. The one thing it is not going to be is "independent". No government is going to hand over a blank cheque to any pay body. Control of public expenditure is too vital an economic tool to be given to an "independent" body. The establishment of a review body means that the Secretary of State takes to himself the power to establish a body which will give him advice on teachers' pay and conditions so that he, and he alone, can determine the outcome. The direct result of that concentration of power in the hands of one man is that the partnership which has done so much to advance Scottish comprehensive education is damaged.
One important consequence of this centralisation of power is that the Secretary of State is able to pursue - with a guarantee of success - whatever agenda he may wish, since "agreement" of any kind would no longer be required. His first indications are that he would move to impose differentiated and performance related pay.
As to treating teachers as professionals, there is no link whatsoever between the concept of professionalism and a review body. No teacher in England and Wales feels or acts more professionally because pay and conditions are fixed by Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, after receiving the report of the review. It is surely the antithesis of professionalism to be denied the right freely to bargain with your employer on these matters.
Local authorities should recognise that a review body will marginalise them. Whatever frustrations some of them may feel about the present system are as nothing compared to the reality of becoming mere conduits for the decisions of the Secretary of State.
Teacher organisations that believe a review body may give them some influence should recognise that they are heading down a dangerous cul-de-sac and throwing away their right to negotiate on behalf of their members. Which brings us back to the question posed at the beginning. Is a review body a step in the right direction? Those who believe in the integrity of Scottish comprehensive education should give a clear answer: no.
Malcolm Maciver teaches at Grangemouth High School and is convener of the Educational Institute of Scotland's salaries and conditions committee and the teachers' panel of the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee.