“SUPPORTING TEACHERS PROFESSIONALISM”
Since becoming SSTA President in May last year, I have been privileged to represent the Association at a wide variety of events throughout Scotland, the UK and Ireland and occasionally in Europe, and, on such occasions, I have been tremendously impressed and encouraged by the respect and goodwill shown towards the Association. The SSTA enjoys a well-deserved and hard-won reputation both within Scotland and the wider education community for a commitment to ensuring that the secondary view is properly represented nationally and internationally in all negotiations, policy formulation and campaigns for the improvement of educational standards and social conditions. Underpinning these aims, at the heart of all we do, is an unequivocal belief in, and support for, teacher professionalism. I can claim no credit for this enviable position achieved painstakingly by the efforts of so many others during the last 62 years, but I can assure you from personal experience that it does make a difference for those of us representing the Association today.
Congress will be hugely relieved to hear that I have no intention of giving a resume of all the meetings, conferences and other events I have attended over the past year but I would like to mention briefly two very contrasting events which illustrate for me, in different ways, the Association’s central place as an organisation for professional teachers. The first of these, and by far the largest, was that wonderful sun-filled day on Saturday 2 July last year when half a dozen SSTA members, along with around 250,000 others from Scotland, the UK, Europe and beyond, took part in the Make Poverty History march in Edinburgh prior to the G8 summit at Gleneagles. Some of the events surrounding the G8 itself are perhaps best forgotten but I’m sure that the scale of the march, the camaraderie and unity of purpose amongst the many diverse groups participating and hopefully the clear message sent to governments that day will remain in our memories forever. The SSTA banner (with a little help and local knowledge of the area surrounding the Meadows) was on prominent display. The second, and possibly one of the smallest, was on a somewhat less sun-filled day on a wet and windy evening in Stornoway on Wednesday 15 February this year when I attended the Eilean Siar District AGM. There were 9 members in attendance, several apologies received and Alistair Moffat apologised for the unusually sparse turn out. When I tell you that there are 71 members in Eilean Siar District and that over 12% of the membership were in attendance that evening (equivalent to over 50 attending meetings in my own Aberdeenshire District) I think we need Alistair to share the secrets
of his success in achieving such a high participation rate. It became clear in the course of the evening that this was a meeting of dedicated and experienced teachers, concerned for the future of their profession and fiercely loyal to the SSTA and all it stands for and I am confident that I would have found the same commitment to the ideals of the Association at every District / Area AGM.This year’s Congress theme “Supporting Teacher Professionalism” recognises this as a core responsibility of the Association towards its members, but also identifies the emphasis currently placed on the development of a confident and highly regarded workforce of committed, well-trained and supported teachers with an enhanced concept of professional autonomy within a more collegiate working environment and has its origins both in the original McCrone Report published in May 2000 and the “Teaching Profession for the 21st Century” agreement based on the McCrone recommendations published in January 2001. Scottish Ministers have increasingly emphasised the value they place on the professionalism of teachers in Scotland and Curriculum for Excellence documentation stresses the move towards more responsibility for professional judgement and creativity within broader curriculum parameters. I must admit that, for me, this does make a welcome change from being constantly berated for a complete lack of professionalism during various disputes during the last 30 years and an uneasy feeling that teachers were being seen more as technicians delivering production-line qualifications rather than credible skilled professionals. August 2006 is the very earliest date for the criteria identified in Annex C of the TP 21 agreement to be seen to be in place, and for the final sections of the jigsaw leading to a formal implementation of the national agreement on the working week. At this point, the contractual obligations of teachers will be expressed simply in terms of a 35 hour week within which a maximum of 22.5 hours will be devoted to class contact. This is conditional on there being sufficient teachers in place to deliver the 22.5 hour weekly maximum class-contact time, the establishment of well-functioning national, local and school-based negotiating machinery, clear monitoring procedures at local LNCT level, the outcome of a sample workload survey referring to the feasibility of the 35 hour working week and the outcome of an evaluation of working arrangements at local level assessing the wider climate of collegiality in schools. This is a decision for the SNCT, but there would appear to be little likelihood of a determination that all of the objective conditions are in place at this stage and this is certainly the SSTA view. Our own survey of members highlights significant shortcomings in core areas such as the failure of school Working Time Agreements to limit and manage teacher workload enabling duties to be completed within a 35 hour week, the very variable impact of additional support staff in removing Annex E non-teaching duties from teaching staff and disappointing levels of collegiate working – there are clearly enormous differences from school to school even within the same local authority.
There remains a lot of work to be done both locally and nationally before we can consign our own battered copies of the SSTA TP 21 agreement to the recycling bin.
In his address to Congress last year, in the context of pupil behaviour and school discipline, Alan McKenzie encouraged members to “Tell it as it is” and many of you may have had just such an opportunity in late February / early March this year if you and your school had been selected as part of a representative sample to complete the National Survey on School Discipline questionnaire. This is part of a national survey of behaviour in schools in Scotland commissioned by the Scottish Executive, supported by teacher unions and COSLA and carried out by the National Foundation for Educational Research by seeking the opinions of head teachers, teachers, non-teaching staff and pupils across the country with the aim of developing a greater understanding of the reality of pupil behaviour and discipline in Scottish schools.Although initial analysis and findings will not be available until mid-June and many teachers will question the need for yet more statistics to establish what every teaching professional already knows to be a serious, endemic and deteriorating problem in classrooms throughout the country, having corroborative research can’t but strengthen our position in demanding resources and supportive measures to tackle the situation more effectively.
The SSTA has consistently maintained that the rights and educational opportunities of the co-operative and conscientious majority of our young people are being regularly
compromised by the actions of a small yet significant disruptive minority and nothing that has happened in the last few years has changed this view – if anything recent experience has consolidated these concerns.We must acknowledge and recognise that an increasing proportion of our young people have additional support needs, either physical, social, emotional or behavioural, and the principles underlying the educational inclusion initiative are readily accepted and worthy of our support. The daily realities in our schools of this drive for inclusion at all costs are not. Across the broad inclusion spectrum, initiatives that are well planned and organised, well supported and suitably resourced, well monitored and regularly reviewed and modified, have the greatest chance of success. There must, however, be a further criterion and that is an “implications for the majority test” and if there are significant negative effects identified then there has to be an admission of failure and alternative provision developed with the absolute minimum of delay. This is particularly so in the context of behaviour and indiscipline. Children and young people prefer to have clearly defined behaviour parameters and respond better, and indeed, are more comfortable when such fair and unambiguous guidelines exist. This is precisely why all schools have a classroom code of conduct incorporated into their wider discipline policy with escalating sanctions for repeated and serious breaches of classroom behaviour rules. No matter how well thought-out this code of conduct may be and how acceptable it may be to the majority of young people
in the school, it can be quickly discredited, rendered inoperable and almost worthless by a few pupils in any class who quickly and regularly reach the upper levels of the discipline system and for whom short periods of exclusion from class and ultimately from school itself pose little deterrent. The corrosive effect of such pupils being regularly recycled through the school’s discipline system has a generally damaging effect on teachers’ ability to maintain good class discipline, but equally damaging are the consequences of permanent exclusion on the life prospects of the individuals concerned. There has to be a much greater emphasis on the availability of alternative educational provision in such circumstances and at a much earlier stage than at the point of permanent exclusion – there are too many losers by then!! I turn now to the President’s Award for the most consistently irritating phrase of the year, and although several contenders for this accolade spring to mind for me, one stands head and shoulders above all others: “gold-plated public sector pensions”. It seems that no debate on the future of pensions in the UK is ever complete without such a reference, however ill-informed or misleading. Comments of this nature contribute nothing positive or constructive, but do succeed in fomenting envy and indeed hostility towards public sector employees.
Teachers rightly have always held the view that the benefits of their pension scheme represent an element of deferred salary, and, to some extent, compensate for the generally lower salary levels available during their working lives compared to similarly qualified professionals in other career areas. Remember, too, that today’s pensions relate largely to contributions made during the 1970s, 80s and 90s when salary levels in teaching were at times relatively worse than they are today.Teachers have faithfully contributed 6% of salary into a scheme rated safe – yes, with unspectacular benefits (half salary after 40 years); yes, gold-plated – no. Indeed, so unspectacular that in the 80s and early 90s teachers were besieged by insurance companies and financial advisers falling over themselves promising “wealth beyond rubies” for doing nothing more than opting out of the Teachers’ Pension Scheme and into a money purchase scheme. How times have changed – as with the similar advice to ditch your dull repayment mortgage and to switch to an endowment mortgage, the promise of future wealth has disappeared like snow off a dyke. Safe final salary schemes, once dull and boring, are now gold-plated. We are grateful to have it pointed out to us that for all these years, we have had a gold-plated scheme without knowing it but not to be told that it is now too good and that it must be snatched away. I have little recollection of any call during the past 30 years for improvements to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme to bring parity with the best “platinum-plated” private sector schemes.
I don’t deny that there has been some scandalous treatment of groups of private sector workers who have seen company pension schemes being wound up and that final salary schemes have been closed by some companies, but why is it that public sector pensions should always be compared to the worst available in private industry and never to the best? And when, for once, public sector pensioners seem to be enjoying a fairer pensions deal does this bring such envy and hostility?As I look forward to my second year in office, I do so convinced that changes during the past year have enhanced markedly the capability of the Association to offer a professional service to professional teachers. The appointment of our two Professional Officers and the move to modern, more flexible office accommodation, will deliver clear and important longer-term efficiency and financial benefits. The SSTA remains a strong and vibrant organisation with a stable and healthy membership, but there can be no complacency about the future and we must be ready now to respond to the challenges presented by a significant number of member retirements over the next decade. I would like to take the opportunity to thank Aberdeenshire Council for the generous allocation of time during the past year. This has meant that it has been possible to minimise any conflict between Aberdeenshire District Secretary and Association President responsibilities and has done much to preserve my sanity – at least for another year!!ALBERT MCKAY
12 May 2006.