Congress 2008 Presidential Address

Congress, Guests, Colleagues,

You may have noticed an increasing emphasis on rights this year. People would seem to have an absolute right to do whatever they wish and be fully protected from the results of their actions. You may even have shared my wry smile over the gambling addict who tried claiming damages from the bookmaker he donated his money to.

Scottish society has apparently changed. We no longer have a community whose ethics are based on the canny reticence and hard work of the past but on a vision of the world where our rights are somehow suspended from any notion of personal responsibility. Someone else is to blame and is therefore responsible for taking any action necessary to protect us.

A colleague recently told the tale of a S1 pupil who was asked where his textbook was. His response, "I've left it at home and it's your fault", left her wondering if she'd missed the amendment to her contract stipulating her duty to remind her pupils to get up, wash and collect their books every morning before school! However the situation was immediately clarified by the charming child who then stated, "You shouldn't have made me take it home and forget it".

What does this mean for teachers in Scottish Schools? Well we'll have to get up very early if we have to contact every pupil before they leave home to remind them about books, jotters and homework! We'll also spend an increasing amount of time dealing with disruption caused by pupils who, when asked to undertake a task, or punishment or detention respond loudly with, "You can't make me, I have rights". How many of us I wonder have retorted to that with, "So have I and I'm exercising them now!"

An increasing amount of time is taken up in schools dealing with pupils who have rights and with their parents who demand action against teachers depriving their little angel of his or her rights. At the same time, some Local Authorities are giving in to the ‘I have rights' argument and instructing schools not to confront the problem but to appease complaining parents.

Vociferous exponents of this lifestyle usually base their claims on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN in Dec 1948, then by the EU in 1950. What a pity they didn't read it through to the end! The 30th article of the Universal Declaration (and 17th of the European Convention) states quite simply that no State, group or person has the right to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein. In other words you cannot exercise your rights by depriving me of mine.

Maybe then they would have realised what we all know, that with rights come responsibilities. In fact, without responsibility, rights become meaningless, since there is then no someone else to be responsible and protect you or safeguard your rights.

By now you're probably wondering what on earth you've done to deserve the lecture on rights and responsibilities. There is a purpose to this but it most definitely is not to suggest that teachers have sole responsibility for the education of young people about either rights or responsibility. Certainly as educators we should reinforce this message but the prime responsibility lies with parents, and with wider society. Parents have a duty to provide their children with a moral code, of which this is only one small part, and society has a responsibility to provide examples of good behaviour to our children.

We, of course, are also part of society, a devalued and under-respected part, but still a part. We too have a responsibility to provide the good examples our children need. Maybe we could start by refusing to accept treatment which devalues us and our contribution to society. We are not, I repeat, not to blame for every ill which befalls our community but how often do we say that? Or do we just accept that society blames us and move on?

During this last year I've had the opportunity to meet teachers from many different countries and, time and again, have been struck by their differing perception of their status in society. Many of these teachers work in difficult situations with few, if any resources, but they are respected and valued members of their communities, although not all of them are valued by their governments. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could regain that support in Scotland and be confident of our position as valued members of our community?

We are already responsible members of society. We obey the law, pay our taxes and behave in an appropriate manner. We work hard and the job we do is arguably the most important in the country since every aspect of our future depends on education. Where will our future doctors, lecturers, nurses, vets, solicitors, train drivers and even government ministers come from if children are not taught to read, write, count, think and question?

But..........and there is always a but.....................! How many of us would act to remedy a problem or would we leave it for that other person, ‘the someone' who should do something? Even when we believe it's important, when a colleague depends on our support, do we sometimes take the easy way out and ‘see no evil.' How many of us are aware of a case against a bully which has collapsed because colleagues who could support the victim are unwilling, or perhaps unable, to raise their heads above the parapet? One of the privileges of being President is being able to work closely with our excellent officials and become increasingly involved in discussion about the problems faced by teachers in Scottish schools, far too many of whom are bullied. Some schools have a management system based entirely on bullying and, should a member of staff be daft enough to question a decision made, have no hesitation in crushing that teacher beneath the collective boot. Since bullies tend to be appointed by bullies, there is frequently little to be gained by approaching the local authority and the only possible remedy is legal action. In a school operating this style of management a victim has to be extremely brave and very well supported, to contemplate such action.

As individuals we may be vulnerable but as a group we have a very loud voice which demands to be heard. We have rights, the right to work unhindered by violence, or the threat of violence; to a workplace free from bullying and harassment; and to the protection of the employment rights we have long campaigned for. In demanding these rights we have to also accept our responsibilities; the responsibility to protect more vulnerable colleagues, to object to situations which are clearly detrimental to ourselves, colleagues and pupils; and above all to insist that, as the voice of experienced professionals, we have the right to be not only heard but actively listened to, and our advice acted on.

Despite our long summer holidays, teachers work more hours every year than most other employees. Can anyone explain to me why, when we have an agreed 35 hour working week, we are still working in excess of 45 hours every week? I asked this question at a recent SNCT event and was informed that "Changing it would cost too much. We would need max class sizes of 15 and increased non-contact time to have any hope of completing our work in the agreed 35 hrs." This would simply be too expensive because of the number of additional teachers that would be needed.

At the SNCT event I listened in disbelief as a national TU official informed the group that the 45 hour working week is not only the norm but essential if teachers are to have any hope of completing their assigned tasks. Clearly the concept of a life-work balance and the risks to health from overwork simply do not apply to teachers. The resulting decrease in quality teaching and learning are, apparently, an unavoidable result and a handy weapon for forcing yet more hours of work from us. What concerned me most was the calm acceptance by others in the group that this situation is unavoidable.

Newly qualified teachers, finishing their probationary year, find it almost impossible to find full-time employment in central Scotland, although I do appreciate the situation is better in other areas. (Or should that be worse, when the shortage of staff results in an even longer working week for teachers?)

Even someone with my vague grasp of economic policy can see the paradox here. We have an aging profession with a huge percentage of retirements imminent, qualified teachers moving into other professions because they can't find work as teachers, and those in work collapsing with exhaustion and stress. Is it just possible that, with a little bit of creative thinking, we could solve this problem? Finding posts for young teachers and, co-incidentally, giving them reason to remain in the profession, would help reduce the working hours of all teachers to the contractual 35. This would avoid teacher ill-health due to exhaustion and thus retain the experienced teachers our schools need if they really are going to be Excellent in the 21st Century. This can only improve the quality of education for our young people and may even have the additional effect of filling our schools with smiley, happy pupils and staff.

Edmund Burke claimed that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for all good men to do nothing. Teachers are very bad at doing nothing and together we can start the process of changing Scottish society.

Ann Ballinger President

16 May 2008