Presidential Address – 11 May 2012

The recurring theme of my last several District Secretary Reports, and indeed motions to Congress, was that of ‘Groundhog Day,’ ie, that each year we faced again the same issues of indiscipline, large classes and unrealistic expectations of teachers, in addition to ongoing pernicious issues such as workplace bullying and intimidation. There was, several years ago, a brief moment when we thought things might be changing –

The McCrone Agreement with its recommendation of ‘time and place working’ allowed teachers at least a modicum of control of where and when they undertook their duties (provided of course, nobody wanted them for anything else). Working Time Agreements at least in theory allowed teachers the discretion to prioritise their commitments. Annexe E, even if never fully implemented, was there to protect us from undertaking unreasonable or inappropriate duties. ‘Collegiality’ became almost a buzz word.

The Teacher Induction Scheme, admired across the world, transformed the experiences of probationary teachers and future generations of Scotland’s children, with guarantees of support put in place and a reasonable work load accepted as a right.

Maximum class sizes of twenty in S1 and S2 English and Maths seemed a good start – what a difference that made for teachers and pupils alike.

The Chartered Teacher Scheme, also admired in other countries, might not have been without its flaws; however, it did guarantee that, after many hours of additional work and no small expense, teachers could aspire to professional salary levels while continuing to work in the classroom to improve outcomes for young people.

How things have changed so quickly. The SNCT Agreement of 2011, which this Association formally rejected, represented an appalling erosion of teachers’ hard won conditions and seriously undermined professionalism by pitting one group of teachers against others. Probationers, supply staff, those on conserved salaries, Chartered Teachers, pregnant women and new mothers – these were the biggest losers – but no teacher was unaffected. Pay has now been frozen for two years during a period of continuing inflation not seen for twenty years and, adding insult to injury, we are now offered a 1% increase in pay come April 2013. I am not alone in thinking this to be derisory and offensive.

Now the McCormac Review – remember no teacher with recent classroom experience, actually served on the McCormac Commitee – recommends ‘flexibility’ within the working week, ie. effectively an end to the 35 hour week. The pitiful level of discretion that ‘time and place’ offers teachers (and offered to almost every other Council worker) is under threat. Chartered Teacher is dead in the water and there are even suggestions that some aspects of teachers’ jobs could be performed by so called ‘experts’ lacking teaching qualifications.

McCormac recommends that Annexe B, which outlines the duties and responsibilities of teachers, be scrapped, and that the GTC ‘Standard for Full Registration’ be adopted in its stead – never mind that that standard was never intended to be a ‘ticky box’ list of competencies but rather a philosophical/holistic attempt to identify the qualities needed in a teacher (and never mind that no teacher on the planet could be expected to meet all aspects of the standard day in day out).

And what about the GTC – that bastion of teacher professionalism, now extolled as the ‘first fully independent Teaching Council in the world? Yeah right. Reducing the number of elected teacher representatives, guaranteeing places to Headteachers whether or not they actually achieve the required number of votes, and establishing a committee structure which would see teachers deprived of their livelihoods by people who are democratically accountable to nobody, but who have volunteered to take on a public duty – is not my idea of independence.

”¦.and of course, there is no money. Whether you blame the bankers, the previous government, the current government, the Greeks or the Americans, or perhaps more realistically a combination of the lot, is largely immaterial – the brutal reality is – THERE IS NO MONEY!

Now I know there is money for wars and bankers’ bonuses and other such necessities, but to invest in education? Don’t be daft.

At a time of curricular innovation, confusion and upheaval, resources are simply not there. The inclusion agenda continues unchallenged but the support services to make it work are eroded constantly. The trained librarians who could have helped teachers cope with some of the issues associated with the so called ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ have been replaced by people who stamp books in and out. Technical support and support in practical subjects have gone. Even Attendance Officers have disappeared but the mantra to ‘do more with less’ continues to drone at us.

And of course, don’t forget the real threats to your so called ‘gold plated pension. No wonder November 30 saw the first industrial action taken by teachers in nearly 30 years and we are now embarking upon a Work to Contract following an 85% ‘yes’ vote in our recent ballot.

We are told that our pensions are ‘unsustainable,’ and that it is unreasonable to expect the taxpayer to support ‘Gold Plated Pensions’ enjoyed by public servants – yet no evidence is provided to support these claims, leading us to the inevitable conclusion that the changes to our pensions are nothing more than a stealth tax specifically targeting public sector employees.

And what of the assurances we have been offered that no major changes will take place for twenty five years? No government, of whatever persuasion can make such a claim. The assurance means nothing at all. Anybody who can add and subtract and do not very hard sums – and I am no mathematician – could tell you that very minor changes to the scheme – such as an increase in the state retirement age – or a change to the level of employee contributions – could have a massive impact on the pension actually received in retirement.

Now let me return to what our Vice President, James Forbes has called my ‘hobby horses,’ (they are of course, his hobby horses too) or for the linguists among you, or as Francois Hollande might say, ‘Revenons a nos moutons”¦’

Issues of indiscipline, workplace bullying, low morale and career stagnation as more and more opportunities are withdrawn as schools and districts embark on cost driven ‘management restructuring,’ are still very much with us.

Make no mistake. We have an uphill fight to defend the rights of secondary teachers, to ensure that hard won rights are not lost forever and that teachers are accorded the dignity, respect and proper remuneration they deserve. Nonetheless, fight we must and fight we will!

Recently, at the STUC Congress in Inverness, I was flabbergasted to hear a delegate from another teaching union state repeatedly that ‘Union principles do not save jobs!’ I am reminded of Groucho Marx’s quip: ‘Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them”¦well, I have others.’

Well Colleagues, I accept that sometimes it is necessary to negotiate rather than confront, but I ask you, if we sacrifice our most fundamental trade union principles, what are we left with and is it worth having?

This Association will work tirelessly to ensure that our members’ rights are not further eroded and compromised. We will work co-operatively and collectively with fraternal unions, with local authorities and with Scottish and UK governments to these ends, – in fact, we will work with the Devil and his cat if necessary – but we will not compromise our trade union principles!

Colleagues, please enjoy this 2012 Congress and go back to your schools ready to energise your members and to encourage them to participate fully in and to engage with, their union. To coin a now infamous expression you might have heard elsewhere, but which here does most certainly apply, ‘We are all in this together!’

Published on 11 May 2012 - Congress