As public sector workers across the UK strike over pensions, Scottish grievances have pushed industrial relations in schools to a new low – but will that lead to more walkouts?
On 30 November, public sector workers across the UK will strike against increases to pension contributions in what is being billed as an unprecedented day of industrial action.
For the Scottish teachers, school support staff and educational leaders who will join the marches and picket lines, the action will not be unprecedented – but it has been 25 years since schools in Scotland were last closed by strikes.
That precedent is sufficiently old that questions are being asked about what this new milestone means for industrial relations in Scottish schools.
“We haven’t had militancy like this in a long time,” says Ken Macintosh MSP, Labour shadow education spokesman. “Nobody, I mean nobody wants a strike. The idea that somehow it’s ‘who’s first to the barricades’ – that kind of language went out years ago. It’s actually disturbing to see the fact that these totally non-militant unions, unions that have never been on strike ever, now feel forced to take strike action.”
Indeed, not a single Scottish education union is ignoring the call to action. Announcing that its members had endorsed strike action via a ballot, the last major Scottish education union to say its members would walk out on 30 November, the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA), confidently predicted that 99 per cent of Scottish schools would close. It is being joined by the likes of the Association of Headteachers and Deputes Scotland (AHDS), which has never gone on strike – in fact, its members had never been balloted. This time, 89.4 per cent said in a survey that they wanted to be given the option. “That is a signal of the strength of feeling about this set of proposed changes,” says Greg Dempster, AHDS General Secretary.
The breadth of the industrial action means that few state school students will be attending school as normal – and most parents will have to make alternative arrangements. “It’s disruptive to family life,” says Eileen Prior, Development Manager at the Scottish Parent Teacher Council.
“Like everyone else, parents are struggling to hold jobs down, perhaps working to different terms and conditions than they were previously, perhaps employers have been less flexible with time off or shifting work around – if you’re working in a managerial role, perhaps you’d be able to swap your work around, but if you’re working in a production line or a supermarket, you’re not going to be able to just say, ‘I’ll not be in.’” Inconvenient, certainly – but does a single day of strikes really damage a child’s education?
Alex Wood, a retired former headteacher and freelance education consultant, is sceptical. “I don’t think that one day’s disruption is going to have any meaningful impact on pupil’s attainment – not to say that it’s not important. I’m certain that teachers will do their best to make up for any learning lost.”
Nonetheless, Prior warns that while there might be consensus within the profession that strikes are necessary, relations between schools and communities will be strained as a result. “The last time round when there was industrial action it took a long, long time for schools and for that parent-to-school relationship to recover, and I would be quite concerned that we go there again,” she says.
But will 30 November be just a blip in the otherwise stable relations between teaching staff and employers, or the trigger for a prolonged period of militancy? One union, the Education Institute of Scotland (EIS) has indicated that it is prepared to ballot its members if the Scottish Government is too robust in its implementation of Professor Gerry McCormac’s review of teachers’ conditions.
“Teachers have in the last year or so suffered various reductions in their standards: their wages have been frozen, their numbers have been cut, the numbers of promoted posts at many local authorities have been cut, the proposals from McCormac – although I don’t think they’re all bad proposals, very far from that – but some of them will have a negative impact on teachers’ conditions,” says Wood.
“I don’t think that any one of them by themselves would have led to industrial action. I think the pensions issue has really struck a chord with teachers and with other public sector professionals as being a serious breach of trust.”
Macintosh believes that more disruption is on the horizon, The Scottish Government was wrong to try and replace the 2001 McCrone agreement, which Macintosh credits with enabling Scotland’s quarter century of peace in Scottish schools. “The biggest change we made – obviously we built new schools – but the biggest change we made was the McCrone settlement, which was not just pay and conditions, but also the morale and the esteem of the profession of teaching.
“The result of that was achieving happier schools, teachers being willing to engage in extracurricular activity, and schools are once more being at the heart of the community – whereas once there was a war of attrition between the Government and teachers.
“Well, that’s gone. And now we’re headed back in that direction. If you want to teach children better, then what you need is a motivated workforce. More than anything else you need teachers to feel valued and to want to give the best to their kids,” Macintosh says.
His assessment is shared by Drew Morrice, Assistant Secretary of the EIS, who says that “McCormac had no money with which to oil the machinery of change.” “The conditions of service that were established in the McCrone review produced fundamental improvement in the conditions of teachers which has been reflected in a period of good working relationships with Scottish local authorities and Scottish government,” Morrice says.
“If either of those two parties think that imposing McCormac will improve that, then we would dispute it; and if they seek to bring things in against the will of teachers then that will lead to industrial action. If they see that there are things in the McCormac report that they think are so important that they will seek to bypass negotiations, then on their heads be it.”
Parents’ groups warn that the public would struggle to understand what teachers’ grievances were, if walkouts were staged over the McCormac review. “I would be very surprised if many parents had any awareness of McCormac and the potential implications. It is recommendations at the moment, no more substantial than that,” Prior says.
“Our understanding is that whenever the cabinet secretary has spoken about it, it has always been, ‘This is up for discussion’. In the current climate we don’t think it’s helpful to adopt this stance at such an early stage.” Wood also sounds a note of caution to union colleagues considering action over McCormac.
“There are two problems with industrial action over McCormac. The first is that although there are one or two bits of McCormac that I think are negative, I think a lot of McCormac makes sense, and I think there are quite a lot of divided views about McCormac. I think there will be few teachers that would view McCormac as completely negative.
“The second thing is – this is not the best time in which to become involved in industrial action. The time for industrial action is essentially growth periods when you’ve got all the weapons behind you. This would not, except for extreme issues – and I think the pensions issue is one – [be] a good time to take industrial action, when other people are feeling the pinch in society,” says Wood.
“If I were in employment today as a teacher, I would be taking an extremely cautious view of protracted industrial action,” he adds. “I think some of the issues that EIS members are concentrating on, such as the right to go home and mark work at home, are ill-thought out.”