This week, members of Scotland’s largest teaching union, the EIS, vote on whether or not to accept changes to their working conditions, and also on whether or not they might be prepared to take industrial action to protect conditions of service. The answer to the first is likely to be a resounding no, the response to the second a definitive yes.
They might be the first, but they most certainly will not be the last of the vested producer interests in the public sector to play the time honoured game of workers versus bosses. As usual, it will be the service users – not parents, but children – caught in the crossfire. Are teachers really so ignorant of the financial maelstrom about to befall us all? In an ideal world, no one would be being asked to forego employee privileges and benefits. But we ain’t living in an ideal world, and aren’t likely to be for some time.
Yes, teachers, like most of the rest of us, are on a pay freeze which in real terms amounts to a pay cut. But unlike the rest of us, the teachers’ pay freeze does not kick in until the new school year. They will get the benefit of a residual 2.5% pay increase between April and September. Still a real terms cut when inflation of 5% is factored in, but a better position than most, nonetheless.
And no, no one likes having to vote away hard fought for and earned conditions of employment but what’s the alternative? Teachers’ salaries take up a huge proportion of education budgets: if ways cannot be found to trim these costs, then the cuts have to fall elsewhere, in less support for children with disabilities and other support needs; on books and resources that are required for our children to learn; on the quality of school dinners, provision of crossing patrols, on basic supplies like toilet paper. All the things, in fact, that contribute to an education for our children. All the things of course, that the EIS will be squealing about in the coming year and beyond, as their absence heaps pressure on teachers and increases their stress levels.
Some might argue that a well resourced, and therefore motivated, workforce is the best option for ensuring our children get the best education, and there is no doubt that it plays a considerable role, but recent research would suggest that it takes more than this. Despite record levels of investment during devolution’s boom years, a good whack of it into teachers’ pay packets, we have not had a commensurate improvement in attainment, particularly for those children living in the most marginalised of circumstances. The 20% at the bottom of the scrapheap has reduced not one jot in twelve years. And while the reasons for that are complex and difficult to resolve, teachers cannot escape their role in contributing to this failure.
What are teachers being asked to forego? The removal of protected salaries for those teachers who lost a promoted post is proposed, but not until 2016. That means five more years of being paid to do nothing in effect, during which time budgets will be slashed.
Probationer teachers are being asked to commit to more contact time with pupils – seems fairly sensible to me, and a gain surely rather than a cut? Probationary teachers will get more hands-on teaching practice making them better equipped to cope with the real deal and oh, lessening the load one hopes on existing qualified staff.
A reduction in leave entitlement to 40 days a year will still leave teachers better off than most other public, private and third sector employees. Such a move paves the way for a long-overdue overhaul of the school year and many parents will say amen to that. “Absent teachers” will only receive 90% of their pay which means those off on long term sick will no longer be entitled to full pay; again, this is a move which would bring teachers into line with most of the rest of us. And it might mean that teachers unable to get to school because of snow or because they cannot get back from the Easter break due to ash clouds will be motivated to try a whole lot harder.
The one proposal which is unsavoury is the placing of supply teachers on lower pay scales, ignoring the vital role they play in covering for sick and ahem, absent colleagues as well as the breadth and depth of skills and knowledge many bring. A shortage of qualified supply teachers because they have realised it ain’t worth getting out of bed in the morning will simply add to the burden on permanent colleagues and harm our children’s education. But here’s a thought – if those on protected pay were prepared to go without from the next financial year, it might leave enough in the pot to pay supply teachers what they deserve.
Or might that involve teachers thinking about more than themselves? The best way to minimise the pain for us all surely is for us all to spread that around: it’s what others are doing, and have been doing for some time now. Perhaps, though, such egalitarian and fraternal notions are no longer part of the much trumpeted public sector ethos and values. Are parents and the wider public likely to support teachers if they go on strike to protect their working practices? Dream on.