Teachers (Scotland)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:42 pm on 11th February 1985.

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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.