Presidential Address - Annual Congress 13/14 May 2011

President's Address Peebles 13 May 2011

Congress, Guests, Colleagues,

In March of this year, I attended a conference on CfE on behalf of the Association.   I was introduced by the chair as the representative of an organisation which had been a “critical friend” to CfE.     I’ll repeat that:   “a critical friend”.   I think that was an absolutely accurate description of our stance.   The SSTA is fundamentally in favour of CfE’s principles:   greater flexibility for teachers; a reduced dependence on assessment; an emphasis on literacy and numeracy and a sensible and effective approach to interdisciplinary learning.

On the other hand, we now have a curriculum which is NOT a curriculum. It is possessed of Experiences and Outcomes which are NOT fit for purpose. It is supported by a National Assessment Resource which, because of a total absence of summative assessment, is NOT capable of delivering a national standard for parents, pupils and teachers. It is supported by new National Qualifications which will NOT deliver National standards at National 4. And there remains considerable scepticism about the arrangements for National 5 and above, not least because we do not yet have the detail to decide. And, as if you needed reminding colleagues (but perhaps the media do) the pupils who will sit these exams are about to enter S2 and will be sitting those very same exams in three years time. As to when they will start their courses of study for these exams, who knows ”¦?

Colleagues, CfE is quite simply unfinished business for the SSTA and we will not let go until our members tell us to do so.

In my speech last year, I referred to the likely consequences of the financial crisis and the recession which it precipitated. At that point, we knew that cuts were coming but not the scale of those cuts. But it is not the scale of the cuts which is astonishing so much as the sheer hypocrisy associated with them.

David Cameron and his Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, have said that the cuts are unavoidable but will be implemented in a way that is fair. Why is it then that TUC research shows that the poorest members of our society will suffer a loss of household income of up to 30% over the next few years while the richest will suffer a loss of only 2%? The impact on women will be even greater : Lone parents and single pensioners – most of whom are women – will suffer the greatest reduction in their living standards due to public service cuts. Lone parents will lose services worth 18.5% and female singles pensioners services worth 12% of their incomes.

53% of the jobs in the public sector services that have not been protected from the cuts are held by women. The pay and conditions of all public sector workers, 65% of whom are women, are deteriorating.

But the most hypocritical aspect of these cuts is the way in which they will simply transfer public debt to private debt. Public debt may be slashed but private debt, which caused the crisis in the first place, will soar. The Office for Budget responsibility has calculated that by 2015, total household debt in the UK will reach £303 billion or £77 thousand per family.

Meanwhile, the banks which caused the crisis by spending our money like drunks on a lost weekend, have been rescued, courtesy of the tax payer. And they have returned to their old ways of rewarding themselves with fat bonuses.

RBS which is 83% tax payer owned, announced this March that it would pay out bonuses totalling £1.3 billion including a shares bonus worth up to £4.5 million – on top of his existing £2m annual bonus – to the Chief Executive Officer Steven Hester. The Coalition government did nothing.

Hypocrisy also marks the coalition government's smash and grab raid on teachers' pensions. Contributions will be increased by 50% and Scotland's teachers face the possibility of having to work until the age of 68. There is a myth that teachers have an easy job but no one who knows what modern classroom teaching is really like could seriously countenance this. And let's lay another myth to rest: our pensions are far from gold plated. The average pension is around £9 000 and the last review of our pension scheme increased our pension age to 65 and increased contributions. The Treasury signed it off then as sustainable.

But to return to my theme of hypocrisy in politics: even after last year's general election, I remember David Cameron stating that any changes to pensions would not infringe rights already accrued. On 23 June 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron told the BBC's Face the Audience programme: “The rights you have accrued so far, of course, no one is going to touch those.”

Yet recently, at the stroke of a pen, indexation of teachers' pensions was changed from the RPI to CPI. It has been calculated that this will lead to a loss to pensioners over twenty years of £20 000 or more from their pensions.

Mr Cameron, you have taken thousands from my pension and from the pensions of every other teacher in Scotland. You have attacked our accrued rights. In my book, that makes you a hypocrite or worse: a liar and a thief!

The financial consequences of the pension grab will be horrendous for younger teachers already saddled with debt from funding their way through university and post graduate education courses. The temptation to opt out will be great. A cynical person might suspect that this is the real intention of the pension thieves.

However, the further consequences for recruitment and retention of teachers are deeply worrying. When the economy finally does revive, as it will, what well qualified graduate will give a second thought to coming into the profession to fill the gaps left by the departure of older teachers such as myself? Yet the demolition government appears set on this course without even going to the trouble of undertaking an actuarial re-valuation of the teachers' superannuation scheme.

Colleagues, Jonathon Swift said ”¦ “ I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed.”

I suspect that , were he alive today, Swift would be agog at a millionaires' club Cabinet which launches an unprecedented attack on living standards and especially those of the poor, adds hugely to personal debt, allows bankers almost unlimited access to a feeding trough funded by that very same personal debt and then robs teachers of their pensions while claiming to be, and I quote David Cameron again here, committed to “making teaching a noble profession again”.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, we too have had hard experience of politicians' hypocrisy. Last autumn, at the Scottish Labour Party conference, the Scottish Labour Leader, Iain Gray, said that ”¦ “Labour values and Labour people were the only bulwark against the Tories.”

And in January this year, in an article for Scotland on Sunday, Alex Salmond also used the “b” word ”¦

“Now we have a Scottish Parliament, which offers not only a bulwark against unwanted Westminster policies but also an institution which can and will take us forward to a better future.”

Why is it therefore that the SNP Scottish Government and both Labour and SNP councils have conspired to attack the living standards of Scotland's teachers and bring about a destruction of their conditions of service which will last well beyond the present economic crisis?

Some people. Some values. Some bulwark. In fact, pardon the language please, more “bullsh*t” than bulwark.

It is clear now that if education is to be defended in Scotland, then we cannot rely on politicians to do so. That must fall, as it always has done, to the teacher trade unions. Or at least to some of them.

It has been said that the revised COSLA proposals represented an improvement for supply teachers on the previous proposals. How can that be when we have calculated that some supply teacher members will lose over 40% of their income and with no adequate guarantees that employers will not simply eject them after 5 days in a school with obvious detriment to pupils' continuity of learning.

Then there is the proposal to abolish lifetime salary conservation within 5 years. It has been said that no one should expect to be paid a salary for doing nothing. The SSTA would agree with that statement. Every promoted teacher should have a remit agreed with the employer and that remit should reflect the salary paid. But some employers used the lifetime conservation arrangements, which were freely entered into under the 21st C Agreement, to persuade promoted staff to give up their remits while management structures were changed. Having now got their way, they are coming back for a second bite of the cherry. How can we trust them not to do the same with this new agreement?

Defenders of the revised offer have said that it protects teachers' jobs. There were 57 500 fte teachers in Scotland's schools when the SNP came to power. In September 2009, there were 56 800 teachers employed in Scotland. By September 2010, that figure had fallen to 54 600. The revised offer from COSLA offered the possibility, and in the SSTA's view an unlikely possibility, of 51 131 posts in September of this year.

Even allowing for a drop in pupil numbers, to describe a loss in a single year of 3 500 jobs as protecting teacher employment is to engage in double speak worthy of Orwell's wildest imaginings.

Congress, the SSTA rejected these proposals and the others because they were simply unacceptable to our members. We know because our members told us – twice.

I would never want to be part of a trade union which sought to abandon vulnerable groups of members. I am however, proud of the manner in which this Association has held fast to its trade union principles. It is a fundamental principle of trade unionism that all are equal in membership, in subscription and in benefit: “an injury to one is an injury to all”. Let others adopt Vicki Pollard policies ”¦ “No but Yes but, No but Yes but, No but Yes but ”¦” The SSTA will stand by its members.

And to that end, let me repeat what I said in my speech last year: when employers threaten our members, then we will use all legal means available to protect them and the service they deliver.

And not merely to protect our members and their living standards and conditions of service. Teachers' conditions of service are pupils' conditions of learning. Our members' union subscriptions are a down payment on a better education service for all concerned: teachers, pupils, parents and yes even employers too.

In my Congress speech last year, I stated that this Association would make common cause with any and all in the defence of teachers' salaries and conditions. And at January Council this year, this Association committed itself to cooperate fully with other teaching unions in defending Scottish education. These offers were made in earnest and they remain on the table. However, rather than take them up, leading members of another teaching union ignored these offers and voted to accept the COSLA deal. In doing so, they totally ignored the results of ballots conducted by ourselves and other teaching unions.

In fairness to them, they were consistent: they also ignored their own ballot!

Then some of them had the effrontery to accuse the SSTA of “posturing” when we refused to do the same.

Colleagues, we have come to a pretty pass when teacher trade unionists describe the defence of teachers and education as “posturing”.

Defending your members, is not “posturing”. That is simply what trade unions - real trade unions and real trade unionists do.

Colleagues, if recent events demonstrate nothing else, they demonstrate the need for unity among Scotland's teachers. A house divided against itself cannot stand. But unity of purpose and unity of values is the fundamental unity teachers need and not any monolithic and monopolistic unity of structure.

In the last 35 years, in all the struggles in which Scotland's teachers have been involved, the SSTA has united with other unions in defence of teachers' pay and conditions and in defence of our education system.

I know, I was there, as were many of you.

The names of those struggles are like battle honours on a regimental colour. Maybe we should have them added to our union banner: Houghton, Clegg, McCrone and now with submissions calling for the scrapping of working time agreements and the ending of any protection afforded by the 35 hr week, and with a committee which contains not a single classroom teacher, it looks like we may be headed that way with McCormac too.

But structures serve their purpose too and it is now clear that Scotland's teachers need and deserve a better structure to unite behind. But that structure must be firmly based on the SSTA's values of democratic principles and democratic accountability. It must also focus on the SSTA tradition of delivering advice and support to teachers directly when the teacher needs it - not when the local area office or the local secretary can find the time and certainly not when the school rep, if there is one, can summon up the necessary information.

And when necessary, the unions which are part of that structure, must be prepared to fall out with employers and not schmooze with them over issues such as delivering CPD to teachers or introducing new initiatives such as CfE.

Such a structure must be based in Scotland and must focus on the needs of Scotland's education service and Scotland's teachers. To be an adjunct of an organisation whose main focus is education in England and Wales simply will not serve.

The new structure must allow Scotland's teachers to unite to defend and advance Scotland's education system. And it should also recognise the simple fact that nursery teachers, primary teachers, secondary teachers and further education lecturers have common professional and trade union interests but often have different perspectives and traditions in terms of curriculum, teaching methodologies and even some conditions of service.

It is not beyond the wit of man or woman to create a structure which encompasses those differences while. And this is critical, sharing the most important vision of democratic trade unions which are prepared to stand up and fight for their members. Indeed, as once contentious issues such as the common maximum fade from memory and new challenges present themselves, such a structure provides a template for professional unity for all of Scotland's teachers.

Congress, I call on Scotland's teachers to support the SSTA's efforts to make our vision of unity a reality. Help us create a new structure which focuses on the values and principles I have just described.

There is real potential in such a union. Indeed, in the words of the song: there is power in such a union and commend it to you and the wider profession.

Peter Wright


SSTA Annual Congress 2011