We're not changing table

21st January 2000 at 00:00
Moves to force teachers into a 'single status' for pay and conditions are a

waste of time, says David Eaglesham.

WHO COULD resist such an invitation - to be present at a veritable Belshazzar's feast? "Your presence is requested at the single table for all local authority workers. Negotiations will be followed by the common cup of conditions." Even now I can hear the hordes racing down to my office in Edinburgh's Dundas Street demanding a wristband to permit access to this table. Or does the anthem have a different lyric?

For a long time now, teachers have been told that they are not special, or at least not special enough to merit the continuation of their separate status within local authorities. The mantra is reiterated and made plain in Jon Mager's article (Platform, last week). It is far too untidy to have the largest single group of local authority workers still having separate status. It offends the sense of wholeness and completeness which is so abundant in local authorities generally.

In reality, the argument is complete nonsense, and always has been. It is little more than a ploy to place greater control in the hands of fewer people, a process that has been going on since the disorganisation of Scottish local authorities in 1994. However, let us examine the argument on its apparent merits.

If single status were to go ahead, how would it benefit pupils? This would happen only if it benefits teachers as deliverers of the service to their pupils. How then would the "single table" improve the lot of teachers?

We are invited to see "joined-up" services as the principal outcome of the single table. Presumably the common pay scales would spur architects and teachers to co-ordinate their activities more closely, and would lead to more meaningful meetings between quantity surveyors and school staffs.

It is ridiculous to infer that professional staff in any council department would only co-operate more if they had their pay and conditions negotiated together. Full co-operation between all council departments already takes place as necessary, and in the most professional of manners, for the good of young people.

We are invited to believe that "schools could be managed more coherently within the council framework" through the single table. Again there is no evidence that this would be the case - why should the management of schools improve if there were common conditions for all staff? Do the current managers need this further motivation to achieve their aims? Of course not, they already manage the system to the best of their ability.

If single status is of such value that it is to be aspired to, then presumably we should look to he existing benefits for local authority staff other than teachers. We are told that "comparable pay with local government colleagues will not be achieved on the basis of substantial differences in hours of work and leave".

This argument might have some validity if we could see our colleagues in local authorities having enjoyed huge progress in salary levels over recent years. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. There is no evidence that any local authority workers, including teachers, have made real progress in salary against a background of successive dogmatic Government policies to downgrade and rein in the public sector. Little incentive, then.

Mind you, anyone who thinks that the "millennium review" was a "spectacular missed opportunity" clearly has a distinctively different perspective on life from 98 per cent of Scottish teachers.

Perhaps the clinching argument comes in the suggestion that "single status hours and leave would give teachers a more regulated and less stressful approach to work". This illustrates the folly of the whole strategy.

Teachers do not want to have an extended form of clock-watching imposed on them. The lie to this was given in the mid-eighties when the document SE40 required prescribed hours instead of professionalism. What teachers want and need is the opportunity to act as professionals, to complete the job to the highest standard and to have a dramatic reduction in the unnecessary and unproductive bureaucracy imposed on them.

The arguments for a single table resound with management-speak, saying much but signifying nothing. "A cohesive workforce", "new cultural values", "joined-up services" all seem part of a mission statement which misses the key issues. What teachers need most of all is not a new table but an acceptable offer on the current table - that would be the dawn of a new era rather than this specious distraction.

The problem with salary negotiations over recent years has not been the machinery itself but the lack of political will at central or local government level to provide real improvement for teachers and schools. Gavin McCrone's inquiry has the opportunity to provide a new focus if he is bold enough, but such putative boldness is likely to founder if the political will does not support his recommendations.

At his feast table, Belshazzar found that the moving finger made its evaluation in the succinct message "mene, mene, tekel, parsin". Scottish teachers will join me in delivering the same message about this hackneyed proposal - "you are weighed in the balance and found wanting".

David Eaglesham is general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association.

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