Leading Article: Is the pay body now a corpse?

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The start of the new year sees schools nearer to industrial action by teachers than at any time in the past 20 years as a result of the Prime Minister's determination to hold down public sector pay. We can understand why Gordon Brown is so determined to protect the country from a rise in inflation; equally, we appreciate why the teachers would be indignant if he were, as seems likely, to overrule any recommendation by the teachers' independent pay review for a salary increase.

On balance, however, with teachers having achieved reasonable pay increases over the past few years, and with there being no recruitment crisis on the scale of the late 1990s, strike action over a lower-than-inflation pay rise would seem precipitate. What can be said loudly and clearly, though, is that this week's events throw into question the role of the independent pay review body.

The body was set up in the late 1990s after years of industrial strife as a means of avoiding strike action and bringing a sense of fairness to teachers' pay determination. This year's events show that, however independent the body may be, it is the Government that holds the purse strings at the end of the day. It might be better to recognise this formally and return to direct pay bargaining rather than continue with a review body that will undoubtedly be seen by teachers' leaders in future as a bit of a sham.

In addition, a further proposal was tossed into the melting pot by the PM this week – the prospect of a three-year pay deal for public sector workers.

Teachers' leaders should refrain from dismissing this idea. It makes sense now that there is more continuity in school budgets with the Government's three-year comprehensive spending reviews. Moreover, it is a mechanism that could be used to offer future rewards to teachers at a time of austerity. It could help the Prime Minister deliver on his pledge made on BBC1's Andrew Marr Show that teachers – along with other public sector workers – deserve bigger pay increases in the future. As a carrot to entice the teachers – and other public sector workers – into accepting three-year deals, it might be necessary to insert some trigger clause into the agreement that would allow a top-up if inflation were to go above a certain level.