Analysis: Will the threat of a teachers’ strike force Derek Mackay to rethink his budget plans?

With the possibility of massive industrial action in the new year looming, the budget may be the Scottish Government’s last chance to avoid further conflict with teaching unions

THE DECISION by the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), Scotland’s largest teaching union, to reject a pay offer by the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) could have far-reaching consequences.

With 98 per cent of EIS votes opting to reject the current three per cent offer to all staff, and other unions backing the EIS call for a 10 per cent pay rise instead, the prospect of industrial action on the matter in 2019 is looking more and more likely.

Scotland’s teaching unions have shown increased coordination and cooperation in recent years, and have been virtually united in their increasing hostility to the position of the Scottish Government, and in particular John Swinney.

So far, the only concessions made by the Scottish Government has been an additional £25m to support a restructuring of pay grades, which would result in all teaching staff on the main scale receive at least a five per cent increase, with some teachers receiving up to 11 per cent over the course of one year, in conjunction with an annual progression.

READ MORE: EIS confident of an ‘overwhelming rejection’ of final pay offer by members

Nevertheless, this has no hope of addressing the concerns of the EIS, which maintains nothing short of the 10 per cent increase demanded can be considered satisfactory.

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS, stated: “Scotland’s teachers sent a strong message about their deep discontent when well over 30,000 took to the streets of Glasgow to march in support of our pay campaign.

“I have been a teacher since 1979 and this is the biggest ballot turnout in 40 years since then and the biggest single rejection of a pay offer. It shows there is deep discontent about pay, but also workload, the cuts to additional support needs staff and the general impact of rising class sizes and resources reducing.

“The threat of industrial action has never been more real in living memory.”

The Herald newspaper today reported that the apparent stalemate could result in the largest teaching strikes on pay since the government of Margaret Thatcher. Seamus Searsson, general secretary of the SSTA teaching union, has suggested that strikes are now “very likely.”

“Can John Swinney persuade his successor in the finance brief to find more money for teachers' pay, and as such help him to avoid full-scale industrial action which would leave the SNP's rhetoric around prioritising education in tatters? I suppose we'll find out soon.” Teacher and journalist James McEnaney

However, what seems certain is that no such industrial action will take place until the new year, after the upcoming Scottish budget in December.

This raises the question: will finance secretary Derek Mackay take some bold, unexpected steps in his next budget to head the crisis off at the past?

Recently, and in particular since the resounding EIS vote, the teaching union has received support from a number of Scottish opposition parties, some of which are not generally known for their enthusiasm for trade union militancy. Even Scottish Liberal Democrat spokesperson Tavish Scott today said that Scotland’s teachers “have every right to demand better” following their repeated warnings about workloads, cuts to classroom support, and pay and conditions.

Scottish Green education spokesperson Ross Greer has also commented: “Scottish teachers work some of the longest hours for some of the lowest pay of OECD countries. For the sake of the young people they are educating, this needs to be addressed and doing so must start with a pay offer which undoes at least some of the damage of the last decade.”

READ MORE: Clashes in Holyrood over public sector pay as teachers' march in Glasgow looms

Such widespread criticism typically inspires the Scottish Government to circle the wagons and remain resolute – but this strategy, much pursued by Swinney, has not solved the problem, and if anything has inflamed it. So while a last-minute budget solution from Mackay might be painted by some as caving to political pressure, it could be the only solution the Scottish Government has left for avoiding a crippling bout of industrial action that would bring Scottish education to a standstill.

In theory, Mackay may have the resources to make such a budget move that he previously lacked. Following the last UK budget, the UK Government block grant funding for the Scottish parliament, which constitutes the majority of Holyrood’s budget, is set to rise by 0.6 per cent, providing Mackay with near £1b extra. Scotland is not yet a land of plenty, though; the Fraser of Allander Institute recently confirmed the Scottish Government’s contention that its funding remains below what it was in 2010, when the Conservatives came to power as part of the Coalition government.

In light of the subsequent funding shortfall, austerity is still very much a reality in Scotland, despite Theresa May’s claims, so Mackay will no doubt be thinking carefully about what can be done with his limited additional resources. While a budget solution to the teacher pay dispute may seem an obvious step to political observers, Scottish Government priorities – particularly on health – will also have to be accounted for.

READ MORE: 4 things the Fraser of Allander report tells us about @ScotGov’s Budget challenges

Speaking to CommonSpace, the journalist, lecturer and education policy expert James McEnaney acknowledged that the responsibility lies with the Scottish Government, rather than local authorities, but was not optimistic about a budget solution to the crisis.

James McEnaney said: “At the end of the day a pay dispute is about money and, although councils are the ones who employ teachers, the Scottish Government ultimately controls the majority of council funding.

“Can John Swinney persuade his successor in the finance brief to find more money for teachers' pay, and as such help him to avoid full-scale industrial action which would leave the SNP's rhetoric around prioritising education in tatters? I suppose we'll find out soon.

“But, to be frank, I won't be holding my breath.”

Picture courtesy of Scottish Government

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