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18th September 2009 at 01:00
Plans being drawn up by teachers' negotiating body demand greater flexibility in flu pandemic

Teaching unions and local authorities are in talks to thrash out a deal which could allow teachers to exceed class size and working hours limits in the event of a second phase of the swine flu pandemic.

In return, the teachers' side of the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers is seeking protection and guarantees for those who have to care for members of their own family, have underlying health issues or are pregnant - conditions which make them more vulnerable to the H1N1 virus.

The first round of negotiations at the SNCT took place this week amid concerns that a handful of authorities were drawing up emergency plans which would allow them to move teachers to other council jobs to keep essential services operating.

Aberdeen City Council is carrying out a "skills audit" of its employees, while Aberdeenshire Council has circulated plans to its staff outlining procedures for redeployment to other sectors and the suspension of grievance procedures.

Drew Morrice, assistant secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, said the SNCT had reached a broad agreement that teachers could not be required to carry out duties of other staff. He said the EIS's position was that any redirection of the workforce should be a decision taken at Scottish Government level - not by individual councils.

"Only the Government can judge the scale of that kind of emergency," he said. "If emergency powers are being introduced, it must be the same playing field for everyone."

The talks were prompted by the change in national policy on how to handle another serious outbreak.

In the first phase of the pandemic, the Government's response was one of containment through school closures; now, it is seeking to keep schools open as far as possible.

But the EIS is concerned that teachers who are parents will face pressure to try and look after their own children, which will in turn put pressure on schools. It also fears that those with underlying health conditions or who are pregnant may be worried about being exposed. "These are the types of things employers should be being creative about," Mr Morrice said.

If employers showed "movement" on these issues, he added, the EIS was prepared to "look at" flexibility on class sizes and the 23.5 hours per week regulations.

Where one school was badly hit, Mr Morrice said, the union might look sympathetically at requests for secondment of staff from another school. And teachers could be prepared to take over school office duties when staff were off sick.

Where one school was particularly badly hit, Mr Morrice went on, the union might look sympathetically at requests for secondment of staff from another school. Teachers could be prepared to take over school office duties when staff were sick. "Teachers are there to teach, and can't be required to take on other tasks," he said. "But we are prepared to be flexible."

Tom Young, secretary of the employers' side representing Cosla in the SNCT, said seven broad principles for business continuity had been agreed this week and would be subject to further discussion. "Constructive talks took place in a spirit of mutual understanding, co-operation and pragmatism. No major obstacles were encountered and we anticipate joint agreement," he said.

But it is corporate guidance from authorities such as Aberdeenshire Council to its employees, including teachers, which has caused consternation on the teachers' side of the tripartite SNCT.

Draft guidance published last month by Aberdeenshire Council discussed "cross-organisation reallocation", saying: "In pandemic status, employees may be requested to work under the day-to-day supervision or direction from staff of a partner organisation, eg the NHS."

In "reallocation of work duties", the guidance states: "During an influenza pandemic, the council must make best use of its resources to support the residents of Aberdeenshire by providing essential services and prioritise resources towards critical services. Owing to significantly reduced attendance levels, employees may be asked to undertake work that is different from the job for which they are employed. Where the request is reasonable, the employee will be expected to agree to it."

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