THE main EIS teaching union is on a collision course with Scottish Borders Council in a bid to maintain the pay levels of former principal teachers (PTs) whose roles, but not salaries, were downgraded three years ago.
Having taken legal advice, the union is demanding the council honours an assurance given by leader David Parker that the wages of these staff, who are now in classroom teaching posts, will be conserved at PT rates – ranging from £38,000 to £48,000 – until they retire or leave the education service.
But despite Mr Parker admitting this week he was wrong to give this undertaking over so-called lifetime salary conservation – in a letter to erstwhile Lib Dem MSP Jeremy Purvis on May 2 last year – the union insists it must be honoured.
The EIS believes the Parker commitment should override a national Scottish agreement, brokered later the same month, that the salary guarantee should cease on March 31, 2016.
Mr Parker, while apologising for “an error made in good faith”, says his council must now abide by the national agreement.
Otherwise, he claimed this week, the Borders would be out of line with all other Scottish education authorities and could open itself to claims from classroom teachers earning thousands less than former PT colleagues for doing the same job.
The dispute has its roots in the McCrone agreement of 2001 when the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers (SNCT), comprising the Scottish Government, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (CoSLA) and the teaching unions, struck a deal to ensure that, despite major changes in teaching practices, those in promoted posts at that time, such as PTs, would not face salary cuts.
Three years ago, under SBC’s Transforming Children’s Services (TCS) programme, subjects, such as history and geography, were combined into single “faculties”.
As a result, 27 PTs were “matched” into classroom teacher posts, but their salary levels, in line with the McCrone agreement, were to be preserved for as long as they worked for SBC.
Last year, however, with the Scottish Government facing a £60million cut in education spending, that deal was renegotiated by the SNCT and it was agreed at the end of May that pay conservation for these PTs should cease in 2016.
During these negotiations, in which SBC’s Councillor Michael Cook was part of the employer (CoSLA) delegation, Mr Parker wrote to Mr Purvis who, as a local MSP, was seeking clarification of the council’s position.
Mr Parker wrote on May 2: “Although SBC fully supports this proposal [the six-year phasing out of lifetime salary conservation], it does not impact in any way in changes we have made in recent years and salary conservation secured as a result of Transforming Children’s Services.”
This week, Drew Morrice, the Edinburgh-based EIS assistant secretary, said Mr Parker’s assurance had been “clear and unequivocal”.
He revealed his union had presented the case of behalf of the affected former PTs in the Borders to EIS lawyers who had advised that each should write by the end of this month to Mr Parker “asking for an assurance that SBC will honour the commitment made at the time of TCS to grant lifetime conservation of salary, regardless of any changes that might be made nationally”.
“Teachers should outline to Mr Parker what the reversal of this commitment will mean to them when their salaries drop to the maingrade scale [currently around £34,500] in 2016,” said Mr Morrice. “In salary terms, these teachers are about to fall off a cliff”.
He went on: “Mr Parker’s apology will be of little comfort to the people who not only saw the correspondence [with Mr Purvis] but were also advised by SBC’s education directorate of the council leader’s position – that pre-McCrone PTs would have lifetime salary conservation.
“Nor will it appease those people who took life-changing decisions about potentially applying for the new posts, created under TCS, and who sought to rely on assurances provided by their employer.
“An apology does not resolve the impact on these individuals and the EIS will seek urgent discussions with SBC to try to find a solution for our members, but we are left in no doubt that the council leader is essentially reneging on a promise given.”
Mr Parker responded: “When I replied as one politician to another [to Mr Purvis] I misunderstood the situation regarding the SNCT negotiations which were ongoing at that time. I had not fully appreciated the potential impact of the negotiations and the subsequent agreement.
“I have apologised and do so again now, but the EIS and its members have been aware of my error, which was made in good faith, for some time and I cannot understand why they are seeking to use this now to make the case for the Borders being a special case.
“This council has consistently applied all SNCT terms and conditions and will implement this agreement together with any other amendments agreed by the SNCT. The council has no alternative but to comply with the national agreement...and to deviate would present a risk in terms of potential equal pay claims.”
One secondary school teacher, who did not wish to be named, told us: “The Transforming Children’s Services restructuring could have been dealt with through making principal teacher roles redundant and recruiting staff at classroom teacher level to fill the gaps.
“The process could have been better thought out. If managers in SBC had spent less time trying to appease everyone, council taxpayers would not be saddled with paying inflated salaries to former PTs and facing possible legal action.”