General Secretary's Report Congress 13/14 May 2005
President, Colleagues, My text for today can be found in the 10th book of Bill Bryson, modestly entitled “A Short History of Nearly Everything”. For those of you who have read Bill Bryson's works, this magnum opus would have come as a bit of a shock. First of all, it is not a history book but a science book. Secondly, it is not the “book at bedtime” genre but a challenging read, to be ingested in a series of encounters over time. So to my preambulatory filibuster! In his quest to make science understandable to all, Bryson gives us gems of information and illustration as follows.
• Charles Darwin, a fan of exactitude, calculated that the number of worms to be found in an average acre of English Country soil was 53,797.
• An ancient pane of glass will be thicker at the bottom than the top due to the viscous nature of glass.
• Avogadro's number, which as you will all recall is 6.0221367 x 1023 can be illustrated as equivalent to the number of popcorn kernels needed to cover the USA to a depth of nine miles, or cupfuls of water in the Pacific Ocean, or soft drink cans that would, evenly stacked, cover the entire Earth to a depth of 200 miles. But perhaps most tellingly of all, he explains the laws of thermodynamics thus.“‘There are four Laws. The third of them, the Second Law, was recognised first; the first, the Zeroth Law, was formulated last; the First Law was second; the Third Law might not even be a law in the same sense as the others.' In briefest terms, the second law states that a little energy is always wasted. You can't have a perpetual motion device because no matter how efficient, it will always lose energy and eventually run down. The first law says that you can't create energy and the third that you can't reduce temperatures to absolute zero; there will always be some residual warmth. As Dennis Overbye notes, the three principal laws are sometimes expressed jocularly as
(1) you can't win,
(2) you can't break even, and
(3) you can't get out of the game.
” As an epithet for Scottish education, it could not be more appropriate. The sense of frustration and disappointment which many teachers feel is widely shared. The current trends for overanalysis of every waking moment, restating and reformulating methods and serial initiative creation have left us with a profession that genuinely believes that they “Can't win” and “Can't get even”. The “showcase” mentality is upon us and is now fully established throughout the system. Everything must be seen to be presented so as to have the greatest effect, not on the pupil, but on the beholder – HMI, local authority, media, the world and his brother. We have contemplated our collective navels to a degree well beyond anything that Bill Bryson has done in his book.Now, I will bow the knee to no-one in my eagerness to promote the excellent quality of education in Scotland. The talent of the teaching profession, the limitless potential of our young people's ability to achieve beyond all expectation are to be celebrated far and wide. The world wide reputation of our education system is rightly held. What I am condemning is not this, but the artificial striving after the wind which is the outcome of so much of the “showcase” mentality. Let's concentrate on actually doing what is good, what is effective, and not on how it looks to outsiders. What we need is consistency not meritocracy. Let's celebrate success without lining the selected up on stage to be lauded by the Daily Bugle and glad-handed by the glitterati. Let's celebrate success the Scottish way – praise from those whom the recipient respects, the quiet word, the encouraging challenge, and let's eschew the Hollywood approach. But what about the third dictum from the laws of thermodynamics – “You can't get out of the game”? Now you will all be ahead of me here – yes, it's the pension crisis. You are amongst the best informed people in the UK about what has happened in the last year. You have unequivocally rejected the proposed changes in line with your union's advice. Sadly, the rest of the world seems much less well informed than you are. Thanks to the rantings of the captains of industry, transmitted by the eager media, we are now to believe that teachers and other public sector workers enjoy gold plated pensions which are scarcely deserved as we do not create the wealth on which this country exists.You will remember these people – they are the ones who queued for hours outside the education offices in the 1970s to be allowed to get into teaching because of the gold plated pensions. Remember them in the Thatcher years demanding to be released from private industry to serve in the public sector? No? Neither do I! The reality is that when times are good, the public sector falls behind, and when times are bad, the public sector should bear the brunt of cuts in wages or pensions. We have nothing to be ashamed of. Our terms of engagement are clear and are an entitlement, not a concession. Not for us the annual bonus, profit sharing, share schemes, corporate benefits, incentives, discounted services – not in the public sector. What we do have are modest or low wages and a promissary pension scheme backed by the Government and fully funded by the contributions of employee and employer. This is “bog standard”, not “gold plated”. You have already shown in the ballot on industrial action just how concerned you are about the attempts to raise the retirement age to 65. Keep your powder dry and await developments.Turning now from the bad news to the good news: the Association continues to go from strength to strength, and there is no clearer evidence of this than our impending move to newer, larger and more usable premises. Later in the year we will move into a purpose built office block in Dalry Road which will provide us with almost double our existing working space. This move comes only 5 years after we extended our current offices to maximise use of space, and is a clear indication of how the growth of the Association from 6000 members and falling, to 9000 members and growing has expanded our work. The new offices will allow us once again to hold committee and training meetings within our own premises, to more effectively organise our work patterns, and gives us room to expand our work even further in future years.It has not been easy to find these premises and the path to obtaining the building has been fiendishly fraught, but the effort has been worth it and will pay dividends in future years. Our success, however, is not due to buildings but people and their efforts. We have not grown and expanded through sheer weight of numbers, either in membership or in representative bodies. Our growth has not come through being a monolithic block nor yet by trying to airbrush out our rivals.Our growth has come through being prepared to “tell it like it is” regardless of the implications. Our growth has come through being willing to focus on the needs of the individual member and by offering them direct support. Our growth has come through our public profile and our policies. Our growth has come through releasing the talents of our staff and our officials to allow them to multiply our efforts and effectiveness.All of this comes at a cost to those who thus dedicate themselves to the common good of the Association, and I want to pay tribute today to all of you who work so tirelessly to keep us where we are at the forefront of Scottish education. In particular, I want to single out our staff who have brought such added value to our overall work. Their willingness to acquire or display new skills, to work flexibly and to be responsive to change and crisis have allowed us to enjoy the most skilled workforce we have ever had available to us. Without them we could not provide the current level of service to officials and members. Looking ahead, however, we will have considerable challenges to meet. We will have to run hard to stand still in terms of membership, and to continue to grow will require further added effort. Whilst the level of union involvement amongst teachers has generally remained very high, this may not always be the case. With ever increasing numbers of new teachers set to replace those retiring over coming years, we may well have to demonstrate the relevance of unions to a new generation of Thatcher's children and we cannot take it for granted that they will respond to collective activity as we did. Indeed, recent voting trends seem to show that younger people are not as willing to turn out and vote at elections, but prefer to support issue-based politics such as anti-racism, fighting poverty and disease often, in part, through the identifying rubber wristlet. Will they be as willing to wear an SSTA wristlet in a fetching shade of blue – pantone 3145. The main force of persuasion will not be slogans, posters or giveaway gadgets, but the counsel of their more experienced peers. They will look to you to demonstrate that union membership is not only relevant, but vital. This will, of course, be an easier decision for them if certain trends in school and local authority management remain as they are. The other main challenge which will face us is the growing certainty of realignment within the trade union movement. Since I referred to this in my Report to you in 2004, significant changes have continued to take place. In the Further and Higher education sector, AUT and NATFHE have agreed to merge and are well advanced on the details of that process.More generally, the proposed merger of Amicus, TGWU and GMBU would create a supra-giant union well able to challenge other unions in the UK and, more importantly, able to challenge at global level. At the same time, the level of expectation amongst members about the extent and range of services offered to them by their union will continue to grow. The advent of 24 hour banking, shopping, health advice etc will have a spin-off effect on our work, and, indeed, already are having an effect as evidenced by the number of calls to the office in the evenings and at weekends.Add to this the likely change in the balance of teachers versus non-teachers in schools. This trend will see relatively fewer teachers and thus less of a market for us, whilst the non-teachers will be unable to join this Association. If we ignore this issue, we will create further difficulties for ourselves in coming years. All in all, we will require to take a long, hard look at our future to see how we can best position ourselves to meet and surmount these challenges. We need to begin this process now whilst we are in a strong and ascendent position. If we wait until the effects of the changes I have outlined are present rather than future tense, then we may be too late.We need to identify what is most important to us in our existence and see how we can best ensure that this remains fully and unrestrainedly available to our members in 15 years time and beyond. The methods and pathways through which we will achieve this are the problem for us to grapple with. The outcome is not a problem – it is a clear vision of a gathering such as this in 15 years time being able to do as we do now, and more. At the risk of becoming like a stuck record, I would repeat to you what I said to you in 2003 and again in 2004“There are many sound reasons for adopting professional unity, and moves towards this continue throughout the trade union movement. In the last year, however, I have never been more struck by the need for an independent voice amongst Scottish Secondary Teachers. If not us, who?” If we plan effectively now, then in 15 years time at a gathering such as this your successors will be able to listen to my successor delivering an equally upbeat message about the strength of this organisation.If we fail to take decisive action in the coming few years, then there is the clear prospect that there will be no such gathering in 15 years for your successors or mine to attend. This would extinguish the independent voice of secondary teachers, possibly forever. It is not a prospect I am prepared to contemplate, and not one that you are, I am sure, prepared to contemplate either.