Why teachers have ruffled the burdz feathers

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.

5 thoughts on “Why teachers have ruffled the burdz feathers

  1. Pingback: On freedom, getting old and…yes, politics. – Scottish Roundup

  2. Good post and I agree with almost every word except: I would not want any teacher to risk their life getting to school when it is clearly not safe to travel as it was for several days last Winter. You can’t expect someone to take that risk when the police advise against non essential travel.

    Secondly, being caught up in things like the ash cloud happen very rarely, and it’s not fair to suggest lack of effort for those who didn’t make it back. The teachers at our school who didn’t make it are generally in at the crack of dawn and out late and who get involved in all sorts of school community activities that they don’t have to. If there is any doubt about whether they could have got back quicker, I am more than happy to give them the benefit of it.

    We are in pretty horrific financial circumstances and everyone needs to do their bit. It seems that what is being asked of teachers is reasonable. The only quibble I have is regarding supply teachers. There’s the obvious equal pay for work of equal value argument – and surely we want kids to not suffer if their regular teacher is off sick. If we pay supply teachers less, then they may be less motivated to provide interesting lessons.

    When I started high school, it was 1979, just as Thatcher’s axe started to fall. I remember spending much of first year, with significant staffing problems in the school, sitting in “Room 47”, which was where displaced kids went, doing next to nothing when we should have been learning.

  3. p.s. Apologies for the very long post!

  4. Some fair points Burd although maybe a little simplistic on some matters.

    Most teachers I know are well aware of the financial realities; I’ve never heard any major complaints about the proposed pay freeze given the wider financial world in which we inhabit.

    The conserved salaries issue is a little more complex; I suspect most teachers agree with you but obviously the main outcry is from those that will lose out.

    Your point about supply teachers being paid less is important and my main concern; you simply cannot ask supply staff to do the same job as permanent ones if they are to be paid less.

    There are of course other issues tied up in all of this, even some which were not officially discussed as part of pay negotiations, not least ongoing concerns about funding and the new Curriculum for Excellence.

    The essential problem in this ballot is, like a general election, you can’t pick and choose the issues you support and discard the rest. Hence you have to support one position (party) and take everything that goes with it.

    Same goes here; teachers are being asked to agree or disagree with everything with no option to express a view on each matter. It would have been very interesting if the vote had allowed an opinion to be expressed on each issue under negotiation.

    In general terms your points about teachers coming into line with other workers is fair enough; no-one can and should be a special case. The downside of this is losing the extra work many teachers do.

    Ultimately if we want teachers to be exactly the same (and many would welcome that) then we have to stipluate exactly what and when they have to do. But like other workers you cannot then expect them to do jobs which are not officially part of their remit e.g. extra study classes, after-school clubs, etc.

    • No need to apologise – your comments are welcome! I have heard a lot of complaining about the pay freeze actually and I think it would have been better if the EIS had balloted issue by issue as it could have done. The results would indeed have been interesting.

      Many teachers do lots of extra work and extra hours and make our children’s education really special – many others do not. But then, the same is true in any other profession. I think that what annoys me is this idea that teachers sometimes give that they are the only ones to give extra. No I wouldn’t want their job and no I couldn’t do it – they perform one of the most important roles, they are a valuable profession that deserves to be appropriately remunerated but within the context of the times within which we sit financially but also to realise that every benefit they have that has a cost means a cut elsewhere to education and school budgets. And they aren’t the only ones making sacrifices – a friend’s work they have had a pay freeze two years ago, a pay cut last year and a reduction in holiday entitlement and other benefits so more people can keep on to their jobs for longer. This kind of thing is happening all over the country right now. But folk will get upset if they see some not contributing to the greater good and acting in their own interests. Which I hope was the central tenet of my blog.

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