Leaders: Schools crisis will be early test of government resolve

Scotland's largest teaching union to proceed with a ballot on industrial action over staff workloads. Picture: John Devlin
Scotland's largest teaching union to proceed with a ballot on industrial action over staff workloads. Picture: John Devlin
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STURGEON looks set to ease home on Thursday but she will face many problems in the months ahead, with education possibly the biggest

For First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP, an emphatic victory in this week’s Holyrood parliamentary election looks assured. But that does not guarantee a smooth and effortless run over the next parliamentary term. Problems are piling up in the in-tray – on the economy, local government budgets and the administration’s “Names Persons” proposal to provide a state-appointed individual to oversee each child in Scotland.

But the immediate and most pressing issue is the declared intention of Scotland’s largest teaching union to proceed with a ballot on industrial action over staff workloads.

The words “Educational Institute of Scotland” and “disruptive action” seem permanently conjoined. Threats of work-to-rules and non-co-operation are seldom far away from its pronouncements. Its prime duty is to safeguard the interests of teachers and to ensure that workloads and staff numbers are properly matched. If they are not, teaching standards are at risk.

This is no easy responsibility for the EIS. In recent years many extra duties and responsibilities have been laid upon teachers.

And of late these have coincided with ever-tightening local authority budgets. Low morale and high staff turnover have added to problems. But this particular grievance, rooted in the introduction of the administration’s Curriculum for Excellence, has a long history and is proving particularly intractable.

The EIS has taken exception to the conclusions of an expert group set up by the Scottish Government in January to address concerns over the new system and its workload.

The teachers’ union feels that the group’s recommendations do not go nearly far enough to reduce secondary teacher workloads and stress in the wake of Curriculum for Excellence.

The formation of the expert group itself followed an indicative ballot by EIS in which more than 93 per cent of members said they would be willing to take some kind of action over “excessive and unsustainable” workloads.

The EIS is demanding a significant reduction in both the workload burden associated with the new qualifications and also the excessive level of unit assessment. And in the light of this, the EIS has decided to proceed with the previously postponed industrial action ballot. This would stop short of a strike, but would see teachers “working to contract” by boycotting any additional work and assessment related to the new qualifications.

Both sides will cite good reasons for not negotiating on this issue in public. The government must demonstrate that it is prepared to provide solutions.

But the EIS for its part needs to address the charge that its criticism is yet another knee-jerk reaction to change of any sort.

Finding a solution to avoid disruption in our schools will be a formidable task – and an early test of the First Minister’s resolve.

BHS grilling needs to be thorough

When you have sold off your business problems for £1 to a businessman with a chequered past and placed the order for your third luxury yacht, inquisitive post-mortems are unlikely to be welcome news for retail entrepreneur Sir Philip Green.

For British Home Stores staff and customers, the stewardship of this once iconic company stinks. Green’s sale of BHS with £571 million of pension liabilities – paying out some £400m in dividends, most of this to his Monaco-resident wife and family as the pension deficit mounted – is now the subject of two inquisitions – one by the Department of Business Innovation and Skills and another by the House of Commons work and pensions committee. The extravagant Dominic Chappell who bought BHS with little by way of retail experience, will also be called to be questioned. A prime matter of public interest is the manner in which the taxpayer through the Pension Protection Fund is now left on the hook to meet the pension entitlements of BHS’s 20,000 retirement savers.

Setting aside concerns over the grand-standing of Commons select committee public grillings, this one deserves to be an unsparing examination of the circumstances of the BHS sale. And OF Green’s personality, judgment, business reputation and corporate conscience. Should he continue to enjoy the honour of a knighthood? It can hardly be a surprise that this should now be in question.

As for the future of BHS, several well-known figures have expressed interest in buying the business including Mike Ashley, the billionaire owner of Sports Direct. It will require massive investment – and surgery – to survive in any recognisable form.