By Geoff Barton
ASCL General Secretary
Why is it that Wales - a nation of 3.1 million people with a much smaller government infrastructure than the behemoth of Westminster - has managed to make a tangible offer to end strike action by teachers, when this has eluded England?
The answer, of course, is political will.
While ministers in England have embarked upon anti-trade union legislation on minimum service levels, and postured about the importance of constraining public sector pay in order to meet inflation targets, the Welsh government has, with quiet determination, gone about the business of conducting an actual negotiation.
Jeremy Miles, the Minister for Education and Welsh Language, deserves personal credit for the constructive and purposeful manner in which he has conducted negotiations. So too do union negotiators, including our ASCL Cymru team whose position was bolstered by our consultative ballot
which showed clearly the strength of feeling of members.
– an additional 3%, of which 1.5% is consolidated, plus a commitment to address workload, and to fully fund the award – won’t satisfy everyone. It still leaves pay in real terms a long way behind where it was in 2010, and the unconsolidated element waters down the long-term benefit in terms of recruitment and retention.
However, it is 100% better than anything England has managed, and the immediate impact is that the NEU has postponed a planned day of action in Wales, which was scheduled for 14 February, while it consults with its members. And for ASCL Cymru members – for whom issues of workload, bureaucracy, and punitive accountability have been such an impediment – there are significant proposed concessions around conditions of service for school leaders.
The Welsh government’s approach is important for a number of reasons.
First, it may head off further proposed industrial action and allow teachers and leaders in Wales to focus on their core business – the education of children and young people.
Second, it demonstrates an understanding that recruitment and retention – which is critically difficult in both nations – can only be solved by improving pay and addressing the systemic pressures which drive unsustainable workloads. Without sufficient numbers of teachers, no targets, ambitions or plans for education are achievable. Indeed, the risk is that standards and provision will be damaged, thus compromising the life chances of children.
Third, it is an example of the art of the possible. The public funding constraints in Wales are especially tight, but this has not prevented the Welsh government from trying to find a solution. Where ministers in England have busily told anyone who will listen that improved pay is impossible and unrealistic, the Welsh government has endeavoured to identify what is possible.
Meanwhile, in England, talks between the education unions and the government resume next week, and it is important that there is now a genuine step change on the government’s part in how these are conducted. So far, the talks that have taken place have not amounted to a meaningful negotiation, in that there is no offer from the government over which to negotiate.
We’ll keep the lines of communication open, because that is the right thing to do, but it is impossible to make progress in a situation that is effectively a stalemate, where the government’s limited aim seems to be to say to the press “We held some talks”.
Time is running out. The NEU plans regional strikes from 28 February to 2 March, and then national strikes on 15 and 16 March. It would be very regrettable indeed if the government cannot manage to come up with any offer before this action goes ahead, and it would fully deserve to be held responsible by the public for the resulting disruption.
Welsh ministers have shown a steely determination to find a solution through the rough, tough process of negotiating. Their counterparts in England must now display similar resolve.
This is important not only in terms of ending the dispute but in giving the workforce a visible sign that it is valued, and in taking a step towards addressing the chronic and worsening issues around recruitment and retention.
A solution can be found. But it will require an act of political will – the kind that we have seen in Wales.
is ASCL General Secretary.