Teachers (Scotland)

– in the House of Commons at 11:18 pm on 11th February 1985.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Lang.]

Photo of Gavin Strang Gavin Strang , Edinburgh East 11:42 pm, 11th February 1985

I make no apology for prefacing my speech with a criticism of the Secretary of State for failing to take this opportunity to make a statement to Parliament on an issue of such gravity to Scotland.

I do not doubt the Under-Secretary's ability to put the Government's case, but it is a tradition that the Secretary of State replies to Adjournment debates on issues of major national significance. I hope that the Under-Secretary will explain the reasons for the Secretary of State's absence, so that we can judge whether he has treated the teachers, Scotland and Parliament with contempt.

The crisis in Scotland's schools is the outcome of years of frustration in the teaching profession at the Government's educational policies. Successive years of cuts in spending on Scotland's schools are now having a serious effect on the quality of education. Falling school rolls should have enabled us to improve the range of opportunities for our children. Instead, we have had the three blackest years in Scottish education.

National and local spokespersons for the Conservative party may convince some people with their propaganda that we cannot afford a decent state education system, but teachers and others know that the Government found thousands of millions of pounds for the Falklands campaign, are finding thousands of millions of pounds in their struggle against the National Union of Mineworkers, and plan to spend over £10,000 million on a new nuclear weapons system. It is a question of priorities; if the Government wanted to do so, they could find the £100 million or so that is needed for Scotland's schools.

The vast majority of our teachers are dedicated to their work. They want the best for our children. It is no use the Government harping on about pupil-teacher ratios. Even the Under-Secretary's predecessor acknowledged that making cuts in teacher numbers proportionate to falling rolls would necessitate a decline in standards. I say, "Even the hon. Gentleman's predecessor" because the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North, as he was then, now Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Fletcher), used to make speeches that attracted the headlines, "Lothian a disgrace". When one read the report, one found that Lothian was a disgrace because it was spending more per pupil than any other authority in Scotland. It had the best pupil-teacher ratio. Things have changed with a vengeance in Lothian. We are suffering a massive cut in education opportunities in our schools as a consequence of the policies of the Lothian regional council. The position throughout Scotland is severe as a result of the lack of resources, especially a lack of the additional resources that are required for the new standard grade curricula.

Teachers' salaries have now fallen well behind the standards set by the Houghton committee. Any objective comparison of the movement of teachers' earnings with average earnings in general or the average earnings of non-manual workers puts that beyond dispute. To compare teachers with other public sector groups that have suffered under the Government or to take as the base year for comparison the position immediately prior to the Clegg committee award is specious, and Ministers know it. Perhaps the main reason for the teachers' anger is the deterioration in their conditions of work. Last November, the Secretary of State received the Scottish joint negotiating committee working party report on teachers' workload. Let me quote some of the important conclusions in that report. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Malone) scoffs, but the report was agreed by both teaching union and management representatives. I should like to quote some of the conclusions which, I emphasise, the Secretary of State received last November. The first conclusion that I should like to quote is: a significant change in the nature and extent of teachers' work content and workload has taken place and continues to take place". The second conclusion that I should like to quote is: the changes are fundamental, progressive and … once complete, they will result in a higher level of workload than before". Another conclusion is: the effect of these changes, in circumstances of limited resources in terms of teaching staff, support staff, equipment and materials, has been to place increasing demands upon the personal contribution, personal commitment and personal time of teaching staff". And another conclusion is: the cumulative effect of the changes, pressures of work and lack of recognition is undermining the morale of the teaching workforce".

In preparation for today's debate, I visited Portobello secondary, the largest secondary school in my constituency. I was very impressed by the stance taken by the teachers, but I was particularly impressed by the enormity of the additional hours of work that teachers have had to cope with to prepare the new curricula for the standard grade courses.

In view of the teachers' concern about the deterioration in their conditions of work as documented by the working party report, it was disgraceful that the Secretary of State put forward a proposal in December that the Scottish joint negotiating committee should carry out an internal pay and conditions review with a remit to reduce rather than improve conditions of service. I hope that Ministers are under no illusions about the depth of feeling among our teachers in Scotland at this time. Surely the result of the most recent ballot by the Educational Institute for Scotland, when there was an overwhelming vote in favour of boycotting documentation and procedures connected with the Scottish Certificate of Education examinations in 1985, made some impact on Ministers.

Like most hon. Members here today, I attended last week's meeting of teachers' representatives from all over Scotland. These people were not EIS activists but teachers from parts of Scotland where there is no tradition of militancy and certainly none in the teaching profession. The reality is that thousands of teachers who would hardly have contemplated this kind of action a few years ago are now doing so because they believe that the Government are influenced only by this type of action. Year in and year out their representatives have campaigned and made representations but the Government have totally failed to respond.

Teachers are concerned about their salaries and conditions of work, but they are also frustrated at the lack of resources and the conditions now prevailing in the schools. I hope that the Government realise that their present stance will not succeed. They will not be able to ride this out on the basis of what is currently on the table. It is not a matter of the leadership of the EIS or the other unions out in front leading their members into action. It is the opposite. The leaders are responding to massive and still growing pressure for action to halt the attack on Scotland's teaching profession and on standards in our schools. The anger and despair among teachers is probably more widespread now than ever before. Individuals for whom industrial action was anathema a few years ago are now convinced that it is the only way to influence the Government.

The halting of curriculum development for third-year pupils following courses for the new standard grade certificate is now seriously damaging their future prospects. I hope that the Minister will comment on that, because although there has been a great deal of publicity about the action in Ministers' constituencies the most serious aspect of the industrial action is the threat to pupils who have embarked on phase 1 of the new certificate. Most schools have run out of materials and there is no authentication of new materials. Those pupils are in a no man's land, not knowing whether they are to press ahead with the new curriculum to be assessed for examination in the fourth year or whether they are to revert to O-levels.

It is not just a matter of the damage to children's education. There is widespread anxiety among pupils and parents that the grade and qualification that they will obtain will be seriously impaired as a result of the present situation. [Interruption.] Conservative Members seem to regard that as some kind of indictment of the teachers' case, but it is nothing of the kind. It is a reflection of the strength of feeling of professional teachers who have been driven to this action.

The Secretary of State has always known that his suggestion of an internal review with a remit to reduce teachers' conditions of service is utterly unacceptable. The teachers' request for an independent pay review has overwhelming support, and it is fair and reasonable. It is high time that the Government made a positive response.

Photo of Mr Allan Stewart Mr Allan Stewart , East Renfrewshire 11:53 pm, 11th February 1985

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) for making it clear that he intended no personal criticism of me in his opening remarks, but I found his comments about my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State both spurious and bogus. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where is he?"] This Adjournment debate is being handled in entirely the normal way. I assure the House that my right hon. Friend is deeply concerned, as is the whole House, about the situation in Scottish education. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State personally met the unions and the management side before he reached a decision on the request for a review. That is why, immediately there was a request from the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee, he agreed to another meeting. That meeting took place on 28 January.

I note that the hon. Members for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing) and Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), who represent the Scottish Opposition on education matters, are in their places. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East has referred purely to pay. It is important to clarify the position. Opposition Members originally signed an early-day motion on pay and conditions of service. The teacher unions have never asked for an independent review of pay and conditions of service.

Photo of Gavin Strang Gavin Strang , Edinburgh East

It is true that the title of the debate refers to the teachers' claim for an independent pay review, but I made it obvious in my speech that I was talking about pay and conditions.

Photo of Mr Allan Stewart Mr Allan Stewart , East Renfrewshire

That is an important point. I understand that that view is shared by the Opposition Front Bench. The point is crucial at this stage of the negotiations with the SJNC.

Photo of Mr Harry Ewing Mr Harry Ewing , Falkirk East

The Minister is seeking to make clear the Government's position on pay and conditions. The Secretary of State has said to the teacher unions that he is prepared to discuss conditions provided that the outcome, in terms of pay, is within the Government's economic policy. In other words, the Secretary of State will make teachers' conditions worse, in exchange for a pay increase of, say, 3 per cent. That is simply not acceptable.

Photo of Mr Allan Stewart Mr Allan Stewart , East Renfrewshire

No, that is not the position at all. We are not insisting on any absolute conditions, as I hope to make clear.

As always, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East made a calm speech. However, it is important to distinguish between two key issues—sympathy with the desire of teachers for better pay, and the attitude of hon. Gentlemen towards the current action by teachers.

I can, of course, understand the first concern. I am myself the son of a teacher. However, it is a distortion of reality to reserve sympathy for teachers prepared to take extreme action rather than for their victims. The action is unprecedented in a number of important respects, notably in relation to examinations and certainly in the fact that sustained action has been taken against the education of pupils who happen to live in the constituencies represented by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and by my hon. Friends who are members of the Government. On a sustained basis, such action is unprecedented in the history of the trade union movement in Britain or elsewhere.

Photo of Mr Allan Stewart Mr Allan Stewart , East Renfrewshire

Not only is it immensely damaging, but it has the most serious implications, because it is action that can in theory be repeated at will by the teachers or by any other trade union.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East raised a number of general questions about expenditure on education. That is not strictly the subject of the debate. However, expenditure per pupil in Scotland, in money terms and in real terms, is higher than ever before. It is also true that pupil-teacher ratios are better than ever before.

Photo of Mr Allan Stewart Mr Allan Stewart , East Renfrewshire

Let me set out the current position of the respective parties. The teachers believe they have a grievance which they want to be resolved only by an independent pay review. My right hon. Friend did not turn down that request out of hand. On the contrary, he made the reasonable and constructive suggestion that the Scottish joint negotiating committee for teaching staff in school education should itself carry out a review of pay and conditions of service together.

Photo of Mr Allan Stewart Mr Allan Stewart , East Renfrewshire

This body, set up by Parliament, was established in 1982 with the statutory responsibility for precisely those areas.

Photo of Mr Allan Stewart Mr Allan Stewart , East Renfrewshire

I have already given way twice — [Interruption.]

Photo of Mr Barry Henderson Mr Barry Henderson , North East Fife

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for hon. Members, during an Adjournment debate, to heckle the Minister in the way that some hon. Members are doing now?

Photo of Mr Paul Dean Mr Paul Dean , Woodspring

It is very clear that the Minister is not giving way.

Photo of Mr Paul Dean Mr Paul Dean , Woodspring

Order. I must ask the hon. Gentleman to resume his seat. It is clear that the Minister is not giving way.

Photo of Mr Allan Stewart Mr Allan Stewart , East Renfrewshire

I have, Mr. Deputy Speaker, already given way twice.

The Scottish joint negotiating committee has both teachers and employers among its members. It therefore has the necessary experience and expertise to undertake a review. There is no case for passing the responsibility for making recommendations to a body with no responsibility for implementing them.

The SJNC was established recently by Parliament, and its remit covered both pay and conditions of service, but so far it has not conducted the kind of review which is now suggested.

My right hon. Friend and I met both sides of the Committee on 28 January at their request. At that meeting we stressed that we would be prepared to consider a pay and conditions of service package on its merits. If it were sufficiently attractive, we agreed to undertake the very difficult task of re-ordering our existing spending priorities to provide additional finance. We would, of course, expect education authorities to make their contribution, too, and I do not pretend for a moment that any such re-ordering of priorities would be other than extremely difficult.

At that meeting the management side accepted the good faith of the Government's intentions and agreed that a review of the kind that we suggested represented a reasonable way forward. It appreciated, I think, that a guarantee in advance that the outcome would be funded in full was not feasible. Obviously, my right hon. Friend could not give such an undertaking before he knew what any package contained.

Subsequently, I was heartened—as I hope all hon. Members were—by the news that the teachers' side was willing to consider the proposals for a review of pay and conditions of service outlined by the management side at the last SJNC meeting on Thursday. I hope that that expression is widely shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I hope that at the further meeting this Friday the teachers' side will come back with a constructive response from its membershipa to what the management side proposed. I am sure that it offers an acceptable way forward.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East mentioned the teachers' perception of the heavy demands made by the job, and no one has ever sought to deny these perceptions, although the report to which he referred had an absence of quantification of burdens. Nobody denies the pressures that effective and worthwhile curriculum development can bring, at least in the critical stages. Equally, I hope that nobody denies the facts of a 32½ hour working week and 12 weeks' holiday a year, which represents some acknowledgement of the strains of the job.

This brings me to the real stumbling block between the parties—conditions of service. Recently, and here I am answering specifically the point put to me by the hon. Member for Falkirk, East, certain duties which were always regarded as part and parcel of a teacher's job have come to be regarded more as optional extras than indispensable elements. The Government want to achieve much greater clarity of definition about the work of the modern teacher. For example, parents have a right to know whether attendance at parents' evenings is purely voluntary or a firm commitment.

We are not insisting on any absolute conditions. We have simply pointed out the main uncertainties, which we think should be clarified, and the points which need to be covered. I am convinced that we need to move as quickly as possible to a state of affairs where all parties know exactly what is expected of them. That must be in everybody's interest—parents, pupils and, not least, the teachers themselves. It is surely a reasonable expectation of an established negotiating body that these areas should be clarified in conjunction with any consideration of pay.

I hope that I have demonstrated to the House that the Government have responded in a genuinely constructive way. Against that background, it saddens me to see how the trade unions are exacting a savage penalty from pupils who have committed no conceivable offence.

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes , Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

The Minister referred to pupils who are innocent in this dispute. My son is one of them—he is affected on three days a week at the Kyle academy. The Minister knows that I have written to the Secretary of State suggesting a possible way forward, but I have had no reply. Is it not about time that the Secretary of State looked at possible ways of conciliation in this dispute, because there are ways in which the dispute can be resolved? The Secretary of State should not be digging in as he is, and seeing the teachers unions digging in on the other side. As there are ways forward, will the Secretary of State and the Minister seriously consider them?

Photo of Mr Allan Stewart Mr Allan Stewart , East Renfrewshire

We have suggested a way forward. I have read the hon. Gentleman's letter, and he will shortly receive a reply to it from my right hon. Friend.

Let us look at some of the actions which the EIS is taking, which go way beyond its response in previous disputes. The action in the constituencies of my right hon. and hon. Friends who are members of the Government is not the action of a professional body. I hope that there will be an early return to professional pride and scruples before the damage inflicted on these pupils is irretrievable. That kind of action, apart from being damaging, is completely pointless.

I was asked about the attack on the standard grade examinations for 14 to 16 year-olds—an attack which strikes at our attempts, fully supported by the education profession, to provide better and more relevant teaching which will help positively to equip youngsters of all abilities for adult life. It is particularly damaging for those pupils who are now being taught the four phase 1 standard grade subjects — English, mathematics, science and social and vocational skills. We have made it clear that those courses should continue. I have asked the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to make a careful assessment of the situation and to advise us urgently on what further measures might be taken to ensure satisfactory provision for third-year pupils who are being affected by the action.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East referred to the threatened disruption of examination procedures — for example, the withholding of the forms putting candidates forward for SCE examinations or the orders of merit which provide a ranking of candidates' expected abilities. The absence of the orders of merit is particularly unfair; without them candidates who do not perform to their true ability for compassionate, health or other reasons may not have enough evidence for an appeal against their mark. I am happy to be able to report to the House that on the latest figures there is evidence that many teachers are showing a sense of personal responsibility by not boycotting the examination procedures. I am told that by today about 80 per cent. —120,000 out of 150,000—of the forms for putting candidates forward for the exams had come to the board, and that two thirds of the marks for modern languages oral examinations had been received by the Scottish Examination Board.

The board is also discussing with the Scottish Universities Council on Entrance what account universities can take of lower performance than expected by candidates for entrance.

My message to hon. Members in all parts of the House is to think long and hard about the fundamental issues at stake in the dispute. I hope that all hon. Members will use their influence to press teachers in their own constituency to give the management side proposals within the SJNC a fair chance. I do not ask Labour Members necessarily to support the Government, but these proposals from the management side represent a reasonable way forward. I hope that we get a package to consider and that we shall get it as soon as possible. We shall consider it on its merits in the interests of everyone concerned with Scottish education.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes past Twelve o' clock.