Waking a sleeping lion

1st October 2010 at 01:00

October will see the publication of the UK spending review, with its subsequent impact on Scottish Government and then local authority spending. The news is expected to be bleak. Education has already been subjected to the "softening-up" propaganda, designed to make us think that anything short of catastrophic is a let-off.

What dismays most is that there appears to be a political consensus that savage public sector cuts are the only legitimate response to the current economic climate, when, in fact, alternative strategies are available, not least being cuts in government expenditure in areas such as Britain's nuclear arsenal.

The significant worry for many of us employed in the public sector is the changed nature of the local government response. In the 1980s, I served as a Labour councillor in Glasgow for eight years. At that time, local government was in the front line of a battle with central government over public spending cuts. Councils, in varying ways, were pledged to defend services and jobs. There was a mood of defiance and resistance, particularly in Scotland, and local councils were keen to profile themselves as leading the fight-back. They were political representatives of their electorates and communities.

Now they seem to be little more than administrators. The issue is not how to fight the cuts but how to implement them.

Admittedly, my perspective of the 1980s may be coloured by my own experience and perhaps I overstate the current position, but it does seem to be the case that, with the exception of Labour-controlled Glasgow fighting with the SNP Government, politics (rather than in-fighting) seems to have disappeared from local government.

I've always had the view that local government is an important element of our democratic process, but there is a developing debate, I think, about their efficacy and relevance.

It has been interesting to note, for example, that the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities is represented on the Curriculum for Excellence management board by a nominee from the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, which is not even a formal local authority mechanism; it is a professional association of colleagues.

Admittedly, whether it is through ADES or Cosla, achieving uniformity of approach across 32 independent local authorities, each with its own challenges, is a difficult balancing act.

The recent TUC conference achieved some high-profile coverage of proposals for concerted public-sector action in response to the developing situation. Newsreel footage of the 1980s was dusted down, and we were all reminded of how things had been. Sober commentators then pointed out the changed circumstances and suggested that we were unlikely to face a serious "winter of discontent".

Clearly, a number of things have changed and it is true that a union such as the EIS has not been involved in mass disputes for some time - although there have been significant local campaigns in the FE sector. That should not create a false impression of the "industrial" muscle of teachers, however. It may be a steep learning curve but, by definition, we are successful learners and it may indeed be time to re-learn some lessons from our past.

On Saturday, October 23, the STUC is organising a major march and rally in Edinburgh under the banner "There is a Better Way". Teachers, I am sure, will be there in their thousands.

Larry Flanagan is education convener of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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