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Why do teachers need a special deal?

A major barrier to 'joined-up' services can be overcome by common conditions for all council workers, says Jon Mager

WHAT IS unique about teachers? What justifies their separate employment status when almost all other council workers are on a unified "single status" set of conditions and pay scales?

It is not as though the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee has served teachers or Scotland well. The failure of the profession to keep pace with comparable earnings and the spectacular missed opportunity of the abortive millennium review leave us to ponder what "joint" and "negotiating" really mean. We all suffer from the demoralisation and the difficulties which can arise where suspicion and cynicism grow.

The independent McCrone review has started work and anyone who wants the best for Scotland will wish for a positive and successful outcome. The idea of a clean sheet, a fresh start, is attractive: the key question is the extent to which an opportunity for radical change will be grasped.

What broad principles should underpin the new deal? Our guiding principles might be to support and encourage high-quality services delivered by a well-trained, motivated workforce with security of employment.

Our core values of public service would be "a positive recognition of the value and contribution of all employees equally in the delivery of council services", with a national agreement which "will present councils with opportunities and challenges in developing a cohesive workforce which is able to identify, provide and support service to the public in an efficient way".

Practical considerations suggest that the national agreement must be balanced by local negotiating strategies. "Strategies are a means to an end; not an end in themselves. While cost control, containment or reduction may be the objective of a local negotiating strategy arising from the Scottish Joint Council Agreement, this is potentially the opportunity to consider if any other ends might also be served, eg changing remuneration policies and practices; extending or containing line managers' discretion over pay and conditions; ending outdated practices; establishing new 'cultural values' which build on the principle of single status; facilitating specific local political aspirations or objectives; or ensuring that application of the agreement supports the 'business needs' of the council."

The quotes are from the guidance notes and main text of the new draft single status agreement for all local government staff.

Of course, adoption of these values, principles and strategies implies that teachers come in from the cold and align themselves with other local government public service colleagues. Adherence to single status coditions would give a framework for structured, flexible and fair pay and conditions.

What are the possible objections? Erosion of professionalism? The claim that teachers are unique professionals who require separate pay and conditions is unsustainable. Solicitors, architects, quantity surveyors, public health analysts, social workers, planners, accountants and information technology specialists all provide professional services within local government pay and conditions structures.

The working week and annual leave? The advantage of a "single status" approach is that the issue is addressed directly and fairly. An attempt to deal with hours and leave by modification of existing teachers' conditions is unlikely to be any more successful than the millennium review. Teachers need to face the reality that comparable pay with local government colleagues or the private sector will not be achieved on the basis of substantial differences in hours of work and annual leave.

The argument that teachers work additional unstructured hours outwith school cannot be sustained alongside a claim to professional status. Adherence to single status hours and leave would give teachers a more regulated and less stressful approach to work and also help to end divisive comparisons with other public and private sector workers.

From a management point of view, schools could be managed more coherently within the council framework. Development and training activity could be properly planned within the school holiday periods when pupils are absent but staff teams are at work.

A major barrier to "joined-up services" can be overcome if all professional and support staff are employed on identical conditions. Single status for all would also avoid time-consuming and confusing duplication of negotiating and management arrangements at national and local level.

Costs will be a major consideration. The true costs of the "millennium deal" were not accurately assessed at local authority level. Whatever the outcome, it will be essential to prove the year-on-year costs of any agreement. If the single status approach to teachers' pay is adopted, it may or may not prove marginally more expensive - but the approach would be fair and consistent. It would also be much more efficient than separate national conditions, for the reasons already indicated.

The McCrone review could identify the framework for negotiating a transition from the current impasse to single status for teachers - a real fresh start and an achievable task.

Jon Mager is the assistant director of education (services to the council) for Aberdeen City Council. He writes in a personal capacity and his views are not necessarily those of the council.

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