Timing is as crucial to politicians as to stand-up comics. Michael Forsyth last week took his officials as much by surprise as everyone else when he announced the Scottish Office's conversion to an independent pay review body for teachers. As the Secretary of State indicated in the radio interview which so far remains the only statement of Government intent, ministers have often toyed with replacing the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee. Now the proposal will be spelt out in the pre-election education White Paper, one of whose purposes is to show that after 17 years the Conservati ves have not run out of reforming ideas.
Timing is about action at the moment of least anticipation. Teachers who in the past have studied the machinations of the SJNC in the hope that an extra percentage point can be added to their salaries are not in expectant mood. They are less upset about pay than colleagues in higher education. Knowing the state of local government finances, they are more concerned about keeping a job and seeing their school reasonably staffed than about exceeding the going rate of a 2-3 per cent pay increase.
They are also divided about the value of the negotiating committee and the opposing benefits or shortcomings of a pay review body in whose ultimate decisions the Government would have a major say. The Educational Institute of Scotland likes the SJNC not just because it rules the roost on the teachers' side: it can also point to past negotiating successes when a mixture of skill and threat has secured a good deal for its members.These occasions, however, appear to belong to EIS history.
The other unions see merit in a review body partly because it would not be the EIS-dominated SJNC and partly because on English evidence a review body delivers the goods at least as well as direct bargaining without the hassle. True, at a time of small annual rises comparisons are in minimal amounts, but the desirability of one mechanism over another is not proven.
Teachers often raise the need for a review body. Mr Forsyth pretended that is what he intends giving them. But he neatly obfuscated the difference between a review following a dispute - Houghton, Clegg and Main - and a permanent body like those which determine the salaries of other professions, including teachers south of the border. The former try to root out anomalies, Clegg's efforts provoking Margaret Thatcher's undisguised fury soon after she became Prime Minister. The latter award the going rate and are sensitive to the Treasury.
University teachers, having this week had a long-delayed offer from their employers, are seeking a review body. In the schools the debate about scrapping the SJNC goes on. Labour nationally says it will keep direct bargaining. Some council leaders might welcome its abolition, though not at the price of another Tory government.