Presidential Address, 70th Annual Congress, 9-10 May 2014

Presidential Address

Members, our friends and our distinguished guests from kindred organisations within Scotland and further afield, it is a great honour for me that I stand before you, to some extent by chance, on this, the occasion of the 70th annual Congress of our respected and successful trade union. Just as in 1944, we stand true to our trade union principles in promotion of a distinctive secondary voice in Scottish education. Back then in those dark years of global conflict, our predecessors were right, just as you are right today and, despite protests which continue even up to the present, we are not going away. We are justified in expressing pride in what we have achieved and we remain inspired by those who have gone before us. The fact that this Association finds itself in such robust condition on the occasion of reaching our three score years and ten stands as a credit to each and every one of you and also to the trailblazers who set the path before us. At this point, I’d like to extend our thanks and friendship to Larry Flanagan of the EIS for the good work he has achieved in promoting shared values and mutual cooperation between our organisations, while respecting our distinct identity.

Curriculum for excellence

In our seventy year history, this really has been a year like no other. In preparation for the Curriculum for Excellence the Government and local authorities invested thousands of pounds in our training and yet, when the new curriculum finally came to pass, teachers reported unprecedented levels of stress. I know this, because I read the responses to the SSTA survey on the new courses. Teachers responded in inordinately high numbers. They responded at 3 and 4 o’clock in the morning after staying up to an ungodly time in order to clear workload or getting up at a ridiculous hour for the same purpose. It was not intended to be this way and it was perfectly reasonable that the public should ask what could possibly be the problem after so much time and financial support had been dedicated to preparing educators for the new curriculum.

We did indeed benefit from an enormous amount of training in the message that something would be different. Even so, nobody was quite sure of what exactly would change. We got plenty of new jargon, but no warning that assessment questions would be vague and answers would be woolly, if ever a correct answer existed at all. This situation has been confirmed again and again across subjects in our survey results.   As you all know, I’m not making this up.

There was a fundamental change in our approach to assessment and yet the change arrived as a gargantuan tremor to teachers who could have coped with the new approach had they only been properly warned and given time to come to terms with such a seismic alteration. One of the most frustrating things our colleagues reported was the standard of proof reading in some internal assessments, which, in spite of all the years of national preparation, appear to have been rushed to production after having been written by people of limited experience in teaching.

We are intelligent people.   We are not against a revolution in teaching for the sake of resisting change.   As educators, we are the instigators in improving society. We are those who offer the potential for liberation from poverty. We are open to progress and welcome every educational initiative designed to improve the life chances of those for whose education we are responsible; but the funds invested in our training were quite simply invested at the wrong level. We need to get the message out to the public that difficulties in the implementation of the Curriculum for Excellence were not caused by those who deliver.   We were pulling out all the stops to make things work, while endeavouring to conceal snags and hitches from the view of pupils, for whose benefit we do everything. We have now reached the point where the learners are sitting their external exams. So let us hope that lessons have been learned from the last twelve months, that errors of the past will not be repeated and that we can now all move forward together and put those troubles behind us for the good of our nation.


Economic injustice

Over the years, I have sat where you are now and I have heard repeated attacks on the government of the day at Congress. These attacks were justified in the past just as they are justified today.   In spite of a lengthy pay freeze, increased costs of pension contributions and an education system in which it appears sometimes as though free overtime must be included in the budgeting, secondary teachers have toiled to meet the demands of one government educational initiative after another and at the same time have seen the purchasing power of their pound pulverized under unpopular economic programmes imposed upon the people of Scotland in an offensively unequal society.   Under austerity the State prefers to invest in the obscenity of Trident, while pupils from the poorest families, the supposed beneficiaries of defence weapons of mass destruction, sit in classes too large for their educational needs and local authorities are forced to merge subject departments in a desperate effort to meet their budgets.

All this in a wealthy country such as ours.

The place of the Educator and Trade Unionist in Society

We are better people than mere egocentric armchair critics. We are more noble people. Have no doubt about it, the sort of society in which the next generation will grow up and thrive will depend to a large extent upon the just and democratic values which you impart to the young people entrusted to your care. That is why, rather than attack individuals, I’d prefer to attack policies and also to remind representatives of the good you achieve on a daily basis, both in the classroom and also in service of your fellow trade unionists and the wider society, regardless of the government endured by the people.

In other organisations they may tell you, “You are nothing without your trade union”. I take a different point of view, “Your trade union is nothing without you.”

We are trade unionists; we hold principles.

We are not a refuge for those who sit on the fence.

We are not a refuge for those who despise political correctness.

We are not a refuge for those who seek the benefits of an insurance scheme without understanding their obligations of playing their role in improving society.


Tribute to Bob Crowe, Tony Benn and Margo

Throughout history, great figures have dared to speak out on behalf of those without a voice. In March, we lost two stalwarts of our progressive, campaigning community for social justice; firstly, through the passing of Bob Crowe then, secondly, we suffered another hard blow only a few days later with the loss of Tony Benn. The beginning of April left us reeling at the sad news of the demise of Margo; I don’t need to give her surname. As you would probably expect, all three of those names featured high on my list of possible guest speakers for Congress 2015. I would have invited all three together. Many loved these people and their enemies loathed them, but there is one thing of which you could be certain, the more they spoke out against injustice, the more strident the establishment became in seeking to vilify them. Many of us in this room can identify with those who stand up to that sort of witch hunt.

The triumphant torch of social democratic courage these three standard bearers carried high before them with pride has not been extinguished through their passing, nor will it ever be extinguished.

Trade union activism

We are the people who raise our voices.

We use our votes, we sign the petitions.

We write letters to the press and to our elected representatives.

We respond to parliamentary consultations; we march and we protest.

We do not turn our backs on workplace colleagues when their face does not fit and others don’t want to know them.

When regulatory bodies abuse their power, we prick their pomposity.

We don’t mind offending those who need to be offended.

The principled Trade Unionist fearlessly champions genuine inclusivity. And when local authority employers in their employment selection procedures, in accordance with the Law of Scotland and following instructions from the non-elected, shamelessly practise discrimination against Atheists and Humanists, against single parents, against adults living together outside marriage, against women living together within marriage, against legally married male couples and against divorced people, all out of the public purse, the Trade Unionist expresses righteous disgust.

As Trade Unionists, we are not here simply for ourselves. We are not here to support merely those who are in employment. Oh no; we strive for a better humanity.

We do not turn our backs on those human beings marginalised in Scotland as they queue at the food banks and struggle to meet the iniquitous bedroom tax while hopeful speculators rub their hands with glee as they anticipate acquisition of a quick quid through privatisation of our national asset the Royal Mail. Muppets and dunces, who should know better, vie with each other to inherit the mantle of Thatcher and debate whether the shares were sold cheap enough or dear enough; I say it was theft from the poor at any price.

Regardless of whether our sisters and brothers in humanity have the good fortune to find themselves in remunerative employment or even to be employable, we refuse to collude in the stigmatisation of people on benefits and we are mindful that one day, we too, hope to become old, fragile and vulnerable.

Nor do we turn our backs on the disadvantaged elsewhere on our shared planet and we use our education to express outrage at the UNESCO report that as many as 774 million adults globally remain illiterate and therefore excluded from their full potential for self-improvement.

In accordance with our membership of Education International, we raise our voices in support of indigenous cultures throughout the world as well as in favour of the indigenous and endangered minority languages and cultures of these islands.

As trade unionists, we can take nothing for granted. All social improvements in democracy, in education, in child care, in health care, in housing, in community land ownership, in employment rights and in provision for the elderly were won in the teeth of ruthless opposition from those who would deny us even the most basic of human rights, as they denied them to those who came before us. Don’t think for one moment that those people, those people who imprisoned, transported and even executed our forbearers have gone away. If you are not vigilant, I can guarantee that you will see them again, in your lifetime. In South Korea, in the present time, the Korean Teachers’ Union has been deregistered. If you go on the TUC website, you will find details of eleven Trade Union activists incarcerated in South Korea at this very moment for their Trade Union involvement.

They continue to blacklist Trade Unionists in the construction industry even nowadays and here I must show my respect to former teacher Neil Findlay MSP for the fine work he is doing in holding employers to account for the scandal of blacklisting. Did you really think there was no blacklisting in education?

We speak up and we speak out.

We will never be silenced.

We know that a better Scotland is possible.

We know that a better world is possible.

And, together with our allies and friends in the trade union movement, the inescapable duty of delivery falls upon each one


James Forbes
9 May 2014