Two wrongs don't make a right;Comment;Opinion

30th January 1998 at 00:00
Disappointing though the outcome of the Wallace case must be for many teachers, it was wrongly conceived and deserved to fail. The Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association and the Equal Opportunities Commission have unnecessarily lost pound;100,000 by pursuing a flawed argument all the way to the House of Lords.

A sense of injustice was allowed to prevail over an elementary grasp of the law. It was and remains unfair that teachers like Mrs Wallace should fulfil a principal teacher's role and not be paid for doing so. But that was not a case to pursue as one of sex discrimination under the Equal Pay Act. The nine appellants in whose names the case was brought are all women, but it was not their gender which cost them pay. Men have been discriminated against in the same way and the only beneficiary has been the former Strathclyde Region and the subsequent single-tier councils.

Giving judgment, Lord Browne-Wilkinson struck at the fallacy of the case. It was "of the greatest importance" that "the disparity in pay between the appellants and principal teachers has nothing to do with gender" - 134 teachers claimed to be carrying out the duties of a principal teacher, 81 of them men. The employers argued that they were hidebound by the pay structure and as Lord Browne-Wilkinson pointed out, "equal pay for male and female teachers was established long before 1970 (when the Equal Pay Act was passed) and teachers' conditions of service prohibit sex discrimination in employment".

The long history of a doomed case has prevented action where it should be taken - in the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee. It will be more difficult now to address the real injustice. The employers could not themselves have devised a more useful red herring to divert attention. Yet some people, it appears, will never learn a lesson. Primary heads in their quest for pay parity with secondary colleagues are initiating a case claiming sex discrimination. That is because women, who represent the overwhelming majority of primary teachers, are underrepresented at headteacher level. The logic of the argument has to be that secondary heads get more money because most are men and not because of the extra responsibility they carry.

If primary heads hope to make progress they should not use the Equal Pay Act for they will certainly fail. They must pursue the real claim that they do the same job as secondary heads and should be paid less only where their schools are smaller. That argument would be strongly contested but at least it would be honest.

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