We failed on pay and now it's up to MSPs;Platform;Opinion

28th May 1999 at 01:00
Councils and unions should both be shamed by their inability to modernise the profession, says Ross Martin

THE CLEAN, bright, recently refurbished negotiating room in the heart of Scotland's capital was a far cry from the smoke-filled dungeons characteristic of our last attempt at modernisation. But the air, none the less, was thick with the talk of a deal being done.

Two sides had spent months claiming and counter-claiming as a passive public looked on seemingly unmoved by it all. This was, however, history in the making - a bright new dawn was to emerge, a new beginning which would transform this country, tearing into years of Tory neglect.

But this was not a coalition government being born. This was the death of another national forum - the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee for teachers.

The contrast between the mature politics that will shape Scotland's new millennium and the petty, parochial posturing that characterised the "negotiations" over teachers' pay and conditions could not be more stark.

Scotland's new government has been built on the foundation of democratic accountability with pillars of principle, endorsed by the electorate, standing firm, allowing politicians the room to modernise within that framework, looking outwards to include people in decision-making. New politics, ready to take on the challenge of change and harnessing its power as a positive force.

Compare that with the stodgy defence of the status quo put up by the teacher unions at the SJNC. While the public have been given a strong voice in the new Scottish Parliament, teachers have been disenfranchised by a lacklustre leadership which couldn't find coherence. It refused to initiate innovative thinking unlike the vast majority of its members in their daily task of teaching.

And whereas the new Government is in touch with the people it seeks to serve, the self-serving bureaucracy of the Educational Institute of Scotland and the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association lacks that democratic legitimacy, ill-reflecting the enterprising nature of their memberships.

Sadly, the unions are making the same mistakes that nearly saw the collapse of the Labour Party in the early 1980s. They are out of touch, out of ideas, out of power - descending into bitter infighting and recrimination at a time when strength of character and cogent argument are required.

The shared vision of a profession with enhanced status, clear career paths and, yes, appropriately high levels of pay was never discussed with individual teachers. We must all accept responsibility for that. In the information age we allowed a vacuum to develop and it was, understandably, filled with speculation and misrepresentation as minority vested interests came to the fore.

The sound principles on which a money-for-modernisation package was constructed were never sold in sceptical staffrooms, filled with change-fatigued teachers. We simply did not take them with us. We were blinkered by a belief that what we were doing was right, allowing our optimism about the strength of our case to cloud our strategic judgment. Our tactical awareness was blunted when we actually had a very sharp and positive message to sell.

An albeit complex package of pound;210 million represented a massive commitment to education by government at all levels. Against the background of the largest ever investment in school buildings and huge amounts of money targeted on priorities shared with practitioners, transforming the educational environment to suit new challenges, we were stuck with the status quo.

We had to move on and the changes had to be far-reaching. They were. A 50 per cent salary hike for new recruits to the profession and good classroom practitioners, an end to the promotional logjam to free up innovation and provide clear career progression for the majority, and the lifting of the bureaucratic burden which weighs so heavily on workload through the installation of effective ICT networks were key elements of the package.

These changes represent a huge step forwards for the teaching profession tackling the very issues which have frustrated teachers for so long. But we didn't even begin real negotiations over their implementation. In place of positive thinking and a willingness to negotiate on teachers' behalf, we were met by a disunited collection of interests, fighting to save the sterility of the status quo. And what future now?

As the democratic dust settles on the elections, local government is emerging with very few elected members experienced in education. Ironically, given the state of play in the Scottish Parliament, the cross-party coalition which existed on the management side has disintegrated.

Local government has failed to deliver and is currently in a state of unpreparedness. It is in no shape to fight for its right to continue to play a role in this key area of the new Scottish executive's programme. An Education Bill will be the first piece of legislation put before the parliament and the new Education Minister and his team will not allow holes to appear.

The comprehensive education system demands a comprehensive approach to its modernisation. Education is the cornerstone of economic prosperity and the hallmark of a civilised society.

We are already seeing the fruits of new Labour's positive approach to education with a significant increase in the numbers of people seeking places at our teacher training colleges. The momentum for positive change is unstoppable. I know that individual teachers, the vast majority of them, are ready to take up the challenge and help shape a brighter future for Scotland. This time let's do it together.

Ross Martin was a leading local authority negotiator on the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee.

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