It probably made Mike Russell’s day. For years, the Education Secretary has been trying to perfect a look that can best be described as a school-teacher’s one. One that fixes the recipient with a steely gaze and shows that he means business. It would appear he has finally managed it, if the EIS President Alan Munro, is to be believed, transmuting this gaze onto paper. Apparently, his offer of help to schools struggling to implement the Curriculum for Excellence came with a “sinister threatening tone“.
Without actually explaining what he means by that, of course. Still, made for a nice headline and possibly a satisfied smile from the Cabinet Secretary.
Next up at the EIS conference was the new General Secretary, Lanny Flanagan who tried to match his President in the hyperbole stakes when he warned the Education Secretary and the Scottish Government that it “cannot hide behind the coat-tails of some Eton toffs“ on pension reform for teachers.
The General Secretary was good enough to acknowledge that it is the UK Government which, in the name of austerity, intends to make people in the public sector work longer and pay more towards their pensions. “We know who the guilty are in this great cash robbery“, he said but also suggested that teachers will expect the Scottish Government to stand up for them and “if they fail to deliver a fair settlement on pensions here in Scotland, we are prepared to fight them every bit as hard as we will fight the UK Government on this issue“.
Just what Scottish education needs: a street-walking, talking, fighting man, prepared to draw the battle lines, and pronounce in tones far more sinister and threatening than anything Mike Russell is alleged to have uttered or written. What Flanagan is saying if we lose the battle with the UK Government – and they will – we expect the Scottish Government to make up the shortfall in the pensions settlement. Which sounds awfy like a case for local bargaining, something else the ConDem government wants to push through and the unions supposedly are against. Shame no one told Larry Flanagan the script.
But if the Scottish Government was to make good the pensions settlement, something would have to give. Either it uses revenue from the new taxes which will be in place by the time these pension reforms go through, or it cuts from existing expenditure. Neither is palatable.
Especially if the shortfall is made up from existing education expenditure. Will students and parents applaud the Scottish Government refusing to hide behind Eton toffs’ coat-tails? Will they agree with the priority that sees more going into teachers’ pockets and purses and less directly into children’s learning? Less to spend on classroom resources, on equipment, on learning support is what it means. Would such a move improve teachers’ morale and productivity, therefore improving outcomes for children and young people? Which is what the EIS is always telling us by the way, that if we just valued teachers a little more, the rest would take care of itself.
I’m not sure parents and families – who have just as many votes to spare in elections as teachers do – would buy it, any of it. Especially when we have years of austerity living ahead of us.
For all the high-blown rhetoric of the EIS leadership, the delegates weren’t buying it either. There was a welcome outbreak of common-sense when members voted against precipitate strike action on the timetable for introducing exams linked to the Curriculum for Excellence. As one delegate pointed out, the union had only agreed a deal with the Scottish Government a few months ago on support measures – the sinister threatening thing – for schools struggling to meet the timetable. Teachers needed to keep to their side of the bargain, was the argument, and see if the promised support makes any difference before throwing their toys out of the pram.
Members agreed. Which might be something Mr Munro wants to reflect on.
Just as Mr Flanagan might wish to reflect that there are more ways to make your mark as the new boy in post than grabbing headlines. There is no doubt that Ronnie Smith is a hard act to follow. He had his moments over the years when he led his membership to the barricades, but he also knew which battles to pick.
Pensions worry everyone, but they are a whole lot more troublesome to them that haven’t got one. While the unions clearly have a case against the UK government’s vandalism, it’s less clear that the public at large would agree to go without so teachers can have more. If offered the chance to reverse some of the austerity measures being imposed by the Eton toffs, I doubt if public sector pension changes would be in the top five. And even fewer would opt for the Scottish Government making up the shortfall, not when other services would have to be cut to enable it.
If Larry Flanagan thinks this is the fight to take to the Scottish Government, he’s wrong. It is a union leaders’ job to promote his members’ interests but not when they have become so vested that they are pitted against those interests they are there to serve – the public’s. Producer interests have no more rights in this austerity morass than we do and at some point, public sector workers have to realise we really are all in this together. It’s us – all of us – against them.
The Education Secretary might occasionally feel that everything is a fight right now. Getting anything done means battling against all the interests set fast against change, be it good or bad.
But these empty vessel speeches and the response of the membership indicate the creation of a gap, between rhetoric and reality. And give hints as to who might win out. As well as practising the sinister and threatening tones, Mike Russell might also want to start rehearsing his maniacal laugh.