This year Scottish teachers are demanding a 10 per cent pay rise – but the best offer on the table from councils has been 3 per cent. To bridge that gulf, union leaders believe teachers will have to at least demonstrate that they are prepared to strike by voting for action in a national ballot.
There has not been a national teacher-led strike over pay in Scotland since the 1980s, but last year college lecturers demonstrated the power of the walkout when they won their fight for a rise.
However, in an exclusive interview with Tes Scotland, former first minister Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale – who went through the 1980s industrial action as a teacher and, in his subsequent career as a politician, oversaw landmark reform of the profession – is warning against teacher strikes.
Industrial action, particularly if it becomes protracted, is extremely damaging for education, according to McConnell.
The Labour peer – who was also education secretary at the time of the 2001 McCrone deal, which led to a 23 per cent pay rise for teachers – says two generations of pupils went through secondary school before the energy and creativity in schools was restored after the strikes over pay in the 1980s.
But he also warns the Scottish government against putting a “short-term sticking plaster” on the issue, and calls for either another significant review of the profession akin to McCrone or a “big vision for Scottish education” from the SNP.
McConnell says the McCrone deal came after a crisis around morale, recruitment and investment in Scottish education. There had also been the unsuccessful Higher Still curriculum and qualification reforms, and the exam debacle in 2000, in which thousands of pupils received the wrong results.
He sees parallels with the current climate in teaching, but he does not think that teacher morale is slumping to the level of the late 1990s as yet.
McConnell says: “The curriculum reforms are botched, and I think the examination reforms are botched. Morale in the system is low, but not as low as in 1999-2000.”
He is calling for “a big-picture resolution”, and argues against a deal that would silence the unions in the short term but fail to address “teacher status and professionalism and morale”.
The current negotiations are about pay alone, although a panel set up by the Scottish government to look at new career pathways for teachers will report early next year.
Approximately every decade, teachers fight for a substantial pay rise, according to Professor Henry Maitles, assistant dean of the University of the West of Scotland’s School of Education, who served as a school representative for the EIS teaching union in the 1980s. But those pay increases have tended to be tied to changes to conditions, he adds.
McConnell echoes this viewpoint, saying that the McCrone deal tied teachers to 35 hours of CPD every year and made it easier for councils to get rid of underperforming teachers. “These were two very symbolic ways we changed the nature of the profession,” he adds. “People were no longer in a job for life if they were not up to it or behaving badly, and people in that job had to improve throughout their career.”
Maitles believes that this time around there is little scope for altering conditions because teachers are already working “very close to their contractual hours”.
The unions argue that this year’s deal is about pay restoration, and that Scottish teachers have suffered a real-terms cut of at least 20 per cent in take-home pay over the past decade. EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan insists that 10 per cent is not just a starting point for negotiations but the actual salary hike the union is holding out for.
“We have already cut our cloth by not going for the 20 per cent,” he says. But to get 10 per cent, Flanagan fully expects teachers will “at the very least have to demonstrate a willingness to take strike action”.
He adds: “We are still hoping to secure an agreement but I don’t think the Scottish government will get close to a figure we could settle on without being pressured by the threat of strike action.”
So while teachers might be disenchanted, are they feeling militant? A Tes Scotland poll that attracted 360 votes suggests they might be.
However, trade unionists and teachers do not have a common enemy in the form of the Thatcher government as they did in the 1980s, says Walter Humes, an honorary professor at the University of Stirling.
Humes, who has worked in education in Scotland for four decades and co-edits the reference book Scottish Education, points out that many teachers, who traditionally would have been Labour supporters, would now vote SNP, so there is not the same “unity of the teaching workforce”.
Flanagan estimates that around half of EIS members have never been on strike before – the last national strike in Scotland that teachers took part in was in 2011 over pensions – but he argues that the teachers’ pay claim has the potential to become a “lightning rod” for the “101 things teachers are angry about”.
Humes agrees. Frustration over workload, teacher shortages, school budget cuts and new qualifications will all feed in, he says, and the recent success of FE strikes may also spur teachers on. However, he adds a cautionary note: “If it got to complete war, there would be heavy casualties on both sides in terms of the reputation of the government and of the teaching profession.”
A spokesman says the Scottish government is taking action to reduce teacher workload by “clarifying and simplifying the curriculum and removing unnecessary bureaucracy”.
Industrial action in schools is not in the interests of anyone, least of all parents and pupils, he insists, adding: “Pay negotiations for 2018-19 are underway and we welcome the EIS union’s commitment to play its part in those discussions. It should be noted this government is the first in the UK to lift the 1 per cent public sector pay cap.”