Ian, my best friend at Uni, introduced me to Schultz’s Charlie Brown cartoons and their disarmingly insightful comments on life. Perhaps my favourite showed Charlie sharing his nervousness about approaching the little red-haired girl with Linus. When at last he stood in front of her. “I didn’t know what to do” Charlie confesses. “So, I hit her.”
I am reminded of such confusion as sundry unions clear the decks for action on St Andrew’s Day. Clearly the UK government has no intention of backing down and welcomes such foolish brinkmanship. The unions are quite right to doubt there’s any point in negotiating. But to lash out because they can’t find any other tool in the box is thrawn and counterproductive.
At least most public service unions have a clear bogey-man to rally opposition. Not only are many likely to lose their jobs but the generous final-salary pensions for the public sector are under threat. Why work longer for less? But in the front cohort of this rebellion are Scottish teachers. EIS General Secretary Ronnie Smith: “At the recent EIS Annual General Meeting, Scottish teachers sent a clear message that their patience with attacks on their standard of living is exhausted.”
That would be the standard of living that involves a 22-hour class time week, together with 12 weeks’ holiday for a salary double what most public sector workers get, would it, Ronnie? Because if there is one group of people whose withholding of their labour is likely to get right up the public’s nose just now, it is teachers, especially when egged on to strike by an EIS general secretary who pulls down a cool £120,000 a year.
Most people—even if they don’t have any kids at school—appreciate that a teacher’s job is not easy, that many still go the extra mile above the call of contract and that Scottish kids are much the better for it. But, once, teachers did even better, taking extra-curricular classes, coaching out of hours, driving minibuses to the theatre or rugby matches with not a penny of overtime. If standards have slipped it is the teachers’.
By the late 1990’s they’d had enough and a long overdue review of the professionalism of teachers and their compensation was launched which developed into the McCrone agreement. Unfortunately, having had the whole hot proposal dropped in his lap by hastily-departing First Minister McLeish, Jack McConnell, despite having been Education Minister, rather fluffed negotiations: he just signed the whole caboodle off without asking anything substantive from the teachers in return.
In the decade since 2002, in which the teachers suddenly received a more professional salary and worked clearly defined, reduced hours, progress in raising our education standards disappeared. The inflation in Highers results should fool no-one: children leaving school in 2011 are no better educated than those in 2001. By any objective measure, other countries, including England, have improved; Scotland has stagnated.
Doubtless there are social reasons contributing to this. But fundamental has been that, far from generous McCrone settlements consolidating the professionalism of teachers (as well as doubling council education spending), it has turned too many teachers into clock-watchers and made a mockery of McCrone-agreed non-contact hours that, in theory, are spent marking and preparing for lessons. This is not to say that heroic examples of teacher dedication do not exist. But they have become rare, atypical.
And, worst of all, the ‘profession’ is now steered by a particularly bolshie coterie who run the EIS as much for their own political reasons as for teachers’ (let alone children’s) betterment. After a decade of having very little to campaign on, union leadership has seized on the Cameron/Clegg coalition’s swingeing actions as a call to arms at just that time when youngsters need to complete their education to make their way through this chilly world… and their parents can ill afford the time off to cope with the disruption it will cause.
The EIS is threatened with no more than a decent re-evaluation of the teaching profession. But that seems to unnerve them because it appears they can’t think of anything clever to say.
So they hit us.