Congress 2008 – General Secretary’s Report

Congress, Guests

President, Colleagues, those of you who were assiduously watching the pictures you have just seen, will have faced a test of recognition. In the bye going, you will also have faced a test of gender and race awareness, but I’m sure you passed that with flying colours.

However, recognition is a much more complex task than one would imagine. For 30 years, the UK and USA failed to recognise “Red China” as they called it. It was clearly the most populous nation on earth with close to one billion inhabitants at that time, and it formed a huge land wedge between the Soviet Union, India and South East Asia, but still we couldn’t recognise it. Or more precisely, we denied it recognition. It was rather like some Jane Austen classic where two strangers cannot introduce themselves and need to wait for a mutual acquaintance to “name” them, before falling madly in love.

50 years later, we recognise China, not least every time we use any electrical apparatus or tool.

Evidently, then, we can fail to recognise that which is as obvious as can be, either because of our short sightedness, or our refusal to recognise that which we see.

As a nation, we in Scotland have a very mixed record on recognition. Historically, we adhered to a fairly strict code of recognition of the kind which could embrace a Christmas Day truce and football match between two sets of armies hell bent on the other 364 days, on annihilating each other.

My grandmother used to tell me of her father’s funeral on the South side of Glasgow in the 1930s. It was held on a Saturday at 3pm, on the day of the Scottish Cup Final at Hampden, and the cortege had to pass through Mount Florida on route to the cemetery.

She told me that on the crowded streets as the funeral cortege passed, every bunnet was in a hand, and not one on a head. The milling crowds had no idea who my great grandfather was, but the code of recognition said “hats off”, and for that brief interlude in a raw, competitive Cup Final day, respect was paid to the unknown occupant of the hearse. I am not so sure of what the reception would be in similar circumstances today, but a re-routing or re-timing might well be called for.

A tale of two Johns. I am privileged to have been a member of the same 237th Glasgow Boys’ Brigade Company as, not only Alan Rough and Kenny Calman, but also John Hannah. While you may well have heard of big Alan and Sir Kenneth, you are less likely to have heard of John Hannah.

Educated, as was I, at Bankhead Primary and Victoria Drive Secondary, John Hannah was a Sergeant in the RAF when, in 1940, his Hampden bomber was severely damaged over Antwerp. Hannah could have bailed out, but instead chose to try to save the remaining crew and aircraft by tackling the blaze on board, with extinguishers, the log books, and finally his hands, as well as throwing the ammunition overboard, and then helping navigate the plane home to base.

For valour, John Hannah was awarded the Victoria Cross by King George on 10 October 1940.

Quite rightly, John Hannah was seen as a hero in my part of the world, but in keeping with the times and mores, his heroism is relatively little known. All I knew of him was a single photograph on the wall in Victoria Drive, with the simple legend “Sgt John Hannah, VC”.

On 30th June 2007, another John from the West of Scotland was working as a baggage handler at Glasgow Airport, when a terrorist attack took place. You will all be fully aware of those events, and will know that John Smeaton helped the authorities in tackling the situation. John Smeaton was awarded the Queen’s Gallantry Medal which was presented to him by Queen Elizabeth on the 4th March 2008.

We could argue for ever about the two men, but what is most striking is that in our modern age, John Smeaton has received immense and intense media coverage, and is now a celebrity on the world stage. Equally, he has been vilified and has had his participation called into question. These are the twin signs of our times – an overzealous approach to fame, and a ready willingness to attack and destroy reputation, and neither is a healthy sign for society.

Whatever else we can be sure of, John Smeaton did not set out for work with the intention of manhandling terrorists, just suitcases. He did what he did, would say that he would do the same again in the same circumstances, and accepted the commendations which followed. What we have done is to impose the cult of celebrity on him instead of the badge of honour, and therein lies the current Scottish dilemma.

How do we recognise and celebrate success and achievement, whilst doing so in accord with our long held Scottish traditions? I give you two examples.

Some years ago, I was contacted by a reputable media organisation to be informed that I had been selected as one of the 300 most significant figures in Scotland. I was staggered, and felt vaguely elated, until I heard that the sponsoring organisation was……Scottish Slimmers. No seriously, it was Kirsty Wark! They wanted me to provide CV details with a view to being further selected to be in the 100 most significant people in Scotland. I laughed uncontrollably, and then put the phone down. Imagine the annual chart – down 3 places, up 10 – relegation scrap for 99th place with Daniel Cousin or Neil Lennon. What a ridiculous notion – that you can rank people in order of importance or influence. If people have influence, they should just get on and use it, not be celebrated for it. That is, and should remain, the Scottish way.

The second example is in the Teaching Awards Ceremonies and their ilk, and this finds us on the horns of a real dilemma.

I believe it is invidious to suggest that one can isolate a single teacher and deem them the “best teacher in Scotland”. It simply does not stand up to scrutiny as a relevant concept, is totally subjective and based on the reality TV genre. Such “contests” should play no part in celebrating success in Scottish education. And yet celebrate success we must. We have one of the best education systems in the world – the OECD has just confirmed this. We have some of the most talented and gifted young people in the world being taught by some of the most gifted teachers in the world. Our international reputation is huge and the respect for and recognition of our systems, our curriculum and our assessment is global.

So how, then, do we deal with recognition of this outstanding achievement in a typically Scottish way. In this dilemma we have the seeds of a solution. We have the opportunity to be innovative and world leading once again. What we require to do is to look at ways in which the totality of achievement can be celebrated, not by examination data or a tacky talent show, but by the holistic achievements of our young people. We need to showcase the talent which is there, without subscribing to the cult of idolising the individual.

I call, therefore, on the Scottish Government, to set up a group to look at the best ways of making this happen. The group should look at what happens in other relatively similar cultures to ours, at previous “showcasing” carried out in partnerships between stakeholders including ADES, the CBI and parent groups, and at devising radical new ways of identifying and celebrating success within our system in all its guises.

Such an initiative would not be easy to carry out, but if we are to promulgate recognition in the Scottish way, then it is not only necessary but essential that we do this. For a country which has lived for generations on its wit and inventiveness, it ill behoves us to simply ape transatlantic culture. Surely, we can do better than this? If we do not, then we will have failed to bring that element of genius, for which our nation is rightly famed, to bear on the creation of a meaningful and effective presentation of the success of our education system.

In conclusion, let me tell you of the wonderful incident which I experienced last year. I entered a small rural tearoom, to see seated in front of me my old secondary school Head Teacher, James Imrie (JT behind his back!) with his wife and family. I approached the group and introduced myself as a former school captain, male lead in school operas and librarian. JT boldly informed me that he was now 99 and would celebrate his 100th birthday in a few weeks. He waxed typical about the good old days in Victoria Drive and the many weel kent characters therein. And then he fixed his bright blue eyes on me, and said (and I will never ever forget his words) “So who are you, then?” Sic transit gloria mundi as a recognitionist might say.

President, colleagues, I present my report

Published on 11 June 2008 - Congress