PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS - CONGRESS FRIDAY 13 MAY 2005

PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS - FRIDAY 13 MAY 2005

“MAKING SCHOOLS WORK” Sometimes in rare opportunities of introspective reflection or when under the latest moment of crisis, one is impelled to ask the ultimate question of existentialism - WHY ARE WE HERE? Whether it is a question that creeps into your consciousness during an interminable committee meeting or when you are representing a member in school and everything seems to be going pear shape, it remains a critical question that lies at the heart of what I want to say to you today.Equally rare then is the opportunity to answer that question in a meaningful way, to somehow grasp an answer from some illuminating moment. Like yourselves, I have had a few illuminating moments in my life, some dramatic and some prosaic but all having that wonderful effecting of turning the light on in a dark room. It was a “Scotsman” headline this year that turned a light on for me. It followed the dramatisation of the events in the aftermath of the tragic Stephen Lawrence murder. The headline was simple. It was an exhortation for teachers to “TELL IT AS IT IS” because it was the failure of teachers to do this that created the problems for those trying to change the nature of Stephen Lawrence's school. This then, colleagues, is the principal theme of what I want to say today!I think for most of us the process of becoming a school rep was largely fortuitous. Few of us probably rushed into the front line. It was more a process of being pushed through the slip trenches and stumbling in semi-darkness into the front line trench. When there the learning curve had to be steep for very quickly does it become clear that the advice from the pushing colleagues that “you'll only need to open the mail” becomes the ultimate lie when you are faced with the multifarious nature of your member's problems. Yet whether you are a battle hardened veteran or a fresh faced newcomer, “telling it like it is” should be the most important imperative that you can adopt. So, bearing this in mind, can we begin by looking at pupil behaviour and discipline? Without doubt, this has been the single most important issue to present itself this year. There are those who would say that it is, for teachers, always the predominant issue in their lives. Thankfully, we have now established by dint of the palpable research of Pamela Munn that pupil behaviour has deteriorated in the last twenty years. This is a much more important statement than it sounds. For there are those who have claimed and still continue to claim that increasing pupil misbehaviour is some kind of myth, some kind of disingenuous teacher invention cooked up, distilled purposely to camouflage teacher indolence or incompetence. Well we know it is not a myth and we can have the confidence of research to prove it.Let's be clear colleagues, when it comes to pupil misbehaviour, we in the SSTA have been telling it as it is for many years now. That doesn't mean constantly saying that we are one minute from nuclear meltdown for that approach is simply not helpful. But the institutional fabrications, the eternal lying, the never-ending distortions that vomit from the mouths of the great and the good when they are pronouncing on the issue of pupil misbehaviour, these are entirely unacceptable also. Tell it as it is. Tell them about the failure of pupils to do homework without being given two or three opportunities; tell them about the failure to bring books, jotters, pens and pencils; tell them about all the corrosive low level stuff that grinds you down on a daily or even hourly basis. Tell them about the bare-faced cheek and abuse that you endure. Tell them about the violence, the real, actual violence as well as the threats of violence, the feelings of contrast physical intimidation that are always there for some of you. Tell them about the braying, insensate adolescent sub-culture, the drug taking, the alcohol abuse, the sexual promiscuity. Tell them that and tell them more. Tell them the whole truth and insist they listen. Many of the Press seemed to take great delight in February at that seemingly iconic moment when Ms Cathy Jamieson was framed in a photograph being interviewed on the subject of adolescent drinking. Now I'm sure that you shared my moment of empathy with Ms Jamieson. Here was a classic moment of adults involved in a serious discussion of a tragic issue and in the background is a gesticulating, disruptive adolescent ruining the moment. Could this not be a paradigm for virtually every classroom in the country: one idiot ruining everyone's chance!!!! Now I don't take any great pleasure from that moment. Actually, Ms Jamieson has my sympathy for at least she was trying to address a very real problem in her constituency. But isn't it interesting that once again this issue arose out of the wrong course of action being taken to address a problem. The problem is underage drinking and anti-social behaviour. The solution is to blame everyone except the neds involved: the manufacturers of one product; the suppliers of that product but not the consumers themselves. Now that resonates doesn't it. Is that not the root of the problem? It's never their fault, it's always our fault. Our fault that pupils don't do homework, our fault that they are late for class, our fault when they fail an examination, our fault when they don't adhere to dress code, our fault when they misbehave in class. Always our fault. This is not paranoia, this is a simple fact and what makes it more is that in the same breath, the great and the good witter on about the need for young people to take more responsibility for their own learning and their own behaviour. Who's kidding who? And who's kidding who when we hear about some of the solutions to adolescent misbehaviour. Try this one for size: one of the problems is that adults like ourselves, aging and out of touch, slipping seamlessly into senility don't understand the adolescent sub-culture that is such an important part of the lives of our pupils. Yes, that's right, it's us again, we're the problem and you've all wasted your breath in the last 35 years trying to influence young people to abandon their sub-culture! There you are, what appalling damage we've all done trying to introduce young people to the culture of Scotland, Europe, the World, when what we should have been doing was a wee bit of rôle reversal. We should been learning from them. We should have been understanding their cultural context. It's really all so simple if only we had done it!!! Now there's a blueprint for the future!! The truth is, there is, has never been and will never be a solution to this. But at least we can help by insisting in our schools that there is a problem. By not allowing the great and the good to talk this down, to minimise and to displace blame and transfer deteriorating behaviour in society to our problem. As a personal plea, I should like the Scottish Executive to indicate to our society just what behaviour should be acceptable in schools. Let's get some kind of lead from them and never mind all these codes of conduct that schools draw up which, let's be honest, have very little real status. What do the Executive think the people of Scotland expect in terms of behaviour or general demeanour from the young people who use the buildings and facilities for which they are paying? Now there's a challenge!!Colleagues, tell them as it is. We've always done that in this Association. We remember what pioneering work was done by our Education Committee in producing the ground-breaking policy document, “Diet and Learning”. It really is only now that people are realising how critical this aspect of achievement is and this Association was one of the first to campaign in this area. We continue to do that and, indeed, one of the motions proposed this year takes this issue even further forward. I should like to take the opportunity to commend the work of all of those in the Association who have taken this issue on. We will not give this up until we have achieved a climate where healthy eating is the norm for our young people and I personally rejoice as school after school rids itself of the stigma of profiting by selling our young people garbage. This bonfire of vending machines selling junk food is a beacon of common sense. Long may it shine! Congress, as I approach the end of my time as President of this Association, it is difficult to avoid looking back and reflecting on those who have influenced me and given me both the wisdom and strength to have performed the offices. Some of them like the great Alec Stanley who first persuaded me to get involved are tragically gone from us. Some, like David, Jim and Barbara are with us today. To them and to our wonderful office led by Lesley I cannot give enough thanks. Without them, the job of President would be impossible. But, at the end of the day, my greatest admiration is for our School Representatives whose rôle is so crucial in not only promoting this organisation but also, alluding again to our Congress theme, assisting in “making schools work”. Perhaps one of the greatest aspirations of Gavin McCrone's original report was that we achieve some measure of collegial working. I rather think the achievement of this is some way off but, in striving to achieve it, our school reps will have a crucial rôle in insisting that decision making in schools properly involve all colleagues, not just senior management teams. I'm sure that nobody will underestimate how difficult it will be to effect this. Nobody gives up their perception of “control” easily but now that “McCrone Committees” have been set up in schools, I believe the next step for us is to widen the work of those committees so that we engage with real decision-making in schools. Clearly our school reps will have to confront this difficult task and, I suspect, there will be many uncomfortable moments but the opportunity to take forward collegiality in our schools is a huge one and one from which we shall not shrink. “Tell it as it is”!Congress, last year in my address, I was anxious to try to cover as many current issues as I could. This year, I have concentrated on far fewer. There are other issues out there I know, but I do believe discipline, diet and the future of collegiate working represent the critical areas of future development. That future looks good for our Association which I believe is stronger than it ever has been. Increasingly membership, new ways of working and new premises all have contributed and will contribute to an organisation that will go on from strength to strength. It has given me great pride to serve as your President. Thank you all for your support and good luck to those who take over.

ALAN MCKENZIE

President

Published on 15 November 2007 - Congress