Presidential Address to 78th Annual Congress

Catherine Nicol, SSTA President

Address to the 78th Congress of the SSTA

The Trade union movement is still a force to be reckoned with.

Trade union members need to be alert to the neoliberal forces in the press, political sphere and social media that strive to create division in our ranks. There is no room for unilateral and partisan action if we are to achieve our shared aims. Holding the line when others seek to break it down is crucial. When those ranked against us succeed in causing division, they take delight in conflict between grassroots members. When our opponents gain the upper hand, this causes misplaced anger and argument between those at the heart of our collective movement. Energy that should be directed into the mission is deflected, purpose is lost, resolution is delayed, and solidarity becomes the victim.

Over the years we have learned that members must be mobilised if we are to achieve our aims and that swift communication and seamless co-ordination is essential. We know that good organisation is necessary and that this is achieved through clear and concise messaging. We recognise that the people that we are fighting for are our strongest asset. We understand that backing each other to the hilt in the fight for the common cause is vital.

Every member of the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association who cast a vote in indicative surveys and formal ballots demonstrated that Secondary Teachers are willing and able to engage in action.  Today I want to pay tribute to District Secretaries, School Representatives and grassroots members who facilitated and took part in our successful industrial action. The Office Bearers, members of the Salaries and Conditions of Service and Executive Committees deserve high praise. All of you stepped up to the mark whenever the call came: you persevered despite a punishing schedule. You listened to the membership throughout and had the courage to make decisions that others shied away from. Accolades also go to the SSTA Secretariat and Office staff who worked relentlessly to ensure our members were kept informed and supported during the pay campaign. Our General Secretary stood at the helm throughout and steered a course through the dark pools & treacherous waters during negotiations. The pay agreement was reached after extensive wrangling between all sides of the SNCT and the final resolution was achieved -in no small part- due to the considerable negotiating prowess of the SSTA’s Commander in Chief.

In March, the Teachers Side of the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers voted for acceptance of a pay settlement brokered by the government and offered by employers. This offer came after a war of attrition between all three sides, it was decent but make no mistake it only goes part of the way to restoring our incomes to the level required to remunerate dedicated professionals.   A majority of members of the SSTA concluded the deal agreed was adequate given current circumstances.

Insult was added to injury when a few employers delayed making good on the back pay due. What a disgraceful way to treat professionals who had been so recently lauded and applauded. Some Local Authorities, a shout out for North Ayrshire, honoured their commitments and demonstrated that the teachers they employ are valued and trusted professionals. They ensured payment due was received in whole by the end of March. One rule for some of the 32 and another rule for others. COSLA need to get their act together if they are to remain part of the negotiating mechanism that determines teachers’ pay and conditions. They keep giving us reasons to chuck them out of the way!

Our dispute has come to an end but colleagues in Northern Ireland fight on. Members of the Northern Ireland Teachers Council, which includes the UTU, INTO, NEU, NASUWT and NAHT are working together in a joint effort to demand better for education and educators. They have unified in action to achieve a fair pay award. Today I send a message of solidarity from the SSTA.

The struggle continues in England too. I was heartened to see the leaders of all 4 teacher unions sit down together to announce that they will co-ordinate action in their fight to obtain a fair pay deal. This happened on the anniversary of the day in 1789 that Fletcher Christian led a mutiny against the infamous Captain William Bligh on the Bounty; and hopefully the UK governments intransigent attitude will take a walk off the plank.

Members of other public sector unions are prepared to take action to obtain decent pay for a fair day’s work; as did we. Their members are willing to stand with colleagues during days of National strike action: as did we. We stand with you and beside you in spirit and cheer you on. Today, I send a message of fellowship to all sister unions still engaged in battle.

The SSTA hope that sense prevails, that the public purse is opened and that sister unions campaigns bring about pay awards that recognise the essential work that you do; all your members deserve better. Have no doubt, the general public and parents who benefit from the work that we do to deliver high quality public services are on your side. Everyone here wishes you well!

While our attention has been focused on the pay dispute the reconfiguring of the education landscape has moved on at pace. Education reform has spawned a variety of reviews and consultations. A rapid response from the SSTA was required. We adopted digital forms of communication to connect with SSTA members in this fast moving and ever-changing environment. The SSTA is grateful to all members who took the time to read our frequent updates thoroughly, contributed to surveys or contacted the office to share their views. The information you have provided the SSTA leadership team has been invaluable during social dialogue with national and global partners.

Members responses have created a rich source of evidence that committees and Office Bearers have drawn on. The data you provided has determined the SSTA position in negotiations, consultative groups and discussions with national education bodies.  Knowing your perspectives on teaching in the secondary sector has enabled us to speak with authority on behalf of Secondary Teachers at conferences organised by Education International. You have enabled your representatives to provide advice for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development which will influence their research and resultant education policy. You have helped the SSTA to build partnerships and foster good relationships with trade unionists around the world. You are invested in education, your views matter. You can rest assured that everyone that sits at the table during Congress does everything in their power to ensure the voice of secondary teachers is heard wherever and whenever the opportunity arises.

You may be asking yourself why all of that is important! Why must this be stated?

Last year we heard much of visions and grand plans. Announcements were made about the whole sale restructuring of the education system. Education Scotland were to be transformed. The Inspectorate were to morph and the SQA was to be no more by 2024.  So, what happens next Cabinet Secretary? Secondary School teachers need to know where we are heading.

The Hayward Review presented us with the best opportunity we have had in a generation to create an assessment structure that truly captures the knowledge base and aptitudes of all learners.  The review seeks a reimagining of the type and range of qualifications that learners could achieve.

A wide-ranging consultation has taken place, but this has involved many stakeholders. Professor Hayward envisaged that every secondary teacher in the land would participate in some way.  However, this hope was not realised. Largely, since teachers were not given the time to access and digest the materials or respond to surveys during In-Service days. This grave mistake was highlighted by the SSTA, and the lack lustre response of employers led us to provide all our members with a direct link to the review web pages. It is essential that Secondary Teachers are not just heard, we must be listened to. Policy makers and decision-making bodies must be made to realise the implications of their latest Visions, Values and Proposals. The reality of working in Secondary Education seem to be wilfully misunderstood. Alterations to existing assessment conditions for National Qualifications is necessary but alterations must be introduced gradually. Skilful persuasion is required to make the architects of change alter their course. We all know it is better to divert the missile before it obliterates the target.  Members of the Education Committee and Office Bearers have advocated for the inclusion of approaches to assessment that you have called for, many to not want to stray from the path that they are sure of.  We have contributed to the teacher trade union response to proposals being made. I note with great interest that in Ireland ASTI and the TUI are pushing back against moves to reduce the weighting given to terminal examinations for the leavers certificate in favour of more extensive internal assessment. Just as this is being proposed as a suitable model for Scotland. It seems the Education ministers of our nations do have time to work collegiately!

The report is soon to be published. Fundamental changes to the assessment and qualifications system could be on their way. Despite our input there is still a danger that the report will be based on thin understanding of what can be done in schools. We will soon know if the recommendations are realistic and if they will gain traction. After all it may not come to pass, the government and employers keep telling us they have nae money!

The SSTA and its members must be fully involved in the establishment of any new assessment & qualifications regime. We need to be persistent in our call for some aspects of the planning and implementation process to be mandatory. We must insist on measures that will control workload.  It must be possible to teach coursework and do all assessments within the time available. Aspects of the wider curriculum must also be considered. Assessment of any subject must not require teachers to work beyond a 35hr working week. All tests must be of a high standard, of sufficient range and pre verified. Assessment deadlines and calls for predictions of pupil attainment need to be aligned with the completion of all coursework.  The use of algorithms to alter grade boundaries in exams should be abandoned.

Educators at all levels in the system are working in a fog and in this sea of uncertainty we are left clinging to the things that we know will float.

To avoid mistakes made in the past; we insist that a troubleshooting process needs to be completed before any new assessment and certification model goes live. Secondary school practitioners need at least one calendar year to prepare before full implementation. Respected professionals and the learners we teach deserve nothing less.

The impact of the pandemic is still keenly felt by many.

Some are living in dire straits, teachers included. Education services are focusing budgets on methods of supporting learners and their families. Many of you mitigate the effect of the cost-of-living crisis on learners. Running breakfast clubs for youngsters that are sitting exams. Making sure that kids have the bus fare to get into school. Organising collections for food banks and gathering second-hand clothing. Going as far as making sure pupils have clean uniforms. Providing pencils, rubbers, glue, paper, and other scholastic essentials.

Austerity has reached the classroom. A make do and mend culture has set in. Many of us are exhorted to find sources of grant funding to maintain basic provisions. We do not have enough for jotters, never mind chemicals or the equipment necessary to deliver rich experiences and joyful lessons.

The fact that we are being asked to do more with much less is ignored. How many of us have dipped into our own pockets to subsidise the department budget? How many of us are purchasing resources needed to make lessons more engaging or buying materials that pupils need to create an assessment piece? You should stop that you know, this is what the SAC and PEF funds are for. You did not get a pay rise so you can subsidise the department budget, diminished as it is. Some of you feel like the world rests on your shoulders, you go beyond your remit to support learners but stop and think: who is looking after you?

And now, the elephant in the room.

 We are living in the aftermath of a global pandemic, but the crisis does not confine itself to school and personal finances. Educators in secondary schools have been hit by a tidal wave of distressed behaviours.

Many of us feel that teaching and learning is now subordinate to managing disruption. Agents of disorder ruin lessons. Pupils refuse point blank to engage in even the simplest of tasks. Some refuse to sit in their allocated seat. Explanations are interrupted by demands for attention. A critical mass of class members are downright rude to staff and each other. Disrespect and selfishness are the order of the day. At worst mob rule prevails in classrooms and corridors. In many schools’ teachers are faced with torrents of verbal abuse during lessons. The number of violent incidents reported is increasing. A culture of accommodating the needs of the transgressor has become the default position in some places. Learners that do come to school to learn do not feel secure. There is an increasing sense that classrooms are not safe learning spaces for staff or pupils.

This was never the intention of law or policy makers; this is the result of misinterpretation of their instruments and lack of funding. There are many reasons why children make poor choices, there is a wide range of circumstances that affect each person’s ability to regulate their behaviour. However, the school is a community, and each classroom is a micro community within it, and we must find better ways of helping children to accept the norms required for good teaching and learning. We need more staff; we need more resources. Increased levels of funding are required to put measures in place to fully support the needs of all learners and their teachers. Secondary teachers seek to develop learners’ capability to develop their subject knowledge and create a safe environment where learning can take place. Demonstrating how learners can take part in lessons in a manner that is productive is integral to our mission. Teaching learners how to behave and respect their peers and the staff is also critical to building a safe environment for everyone- including teachers and support staff.

The OECD are suggesting that governments ensure that people are taught to swim, but I do not think this was the high tide of which they were thinking. If we do not act now Good Ship Education will sink: many teachers are already heading for the lifeboats!


The morale of teachers has never have been at such a low ebb.

The entire system is in a state of flux and uncertainty reigns.

Scottish Secondary teachers and colleagues in other sectors must march onwards to ensure that the health and wellbeing of teachers is not wounded more severely than it already is. We must refocus our effort on our campaigns to reduce class contact time and class sizes. We must jettison causes of workload that make our working lives intolerable. We must intensify our effort to improve and extend support structures available to teachers. We must insist on the introduction of measures that actively reduce the causes of work-related ill health & stress. The Teachers Side of the Scottish Negotiating Committee, our Association, and colleagues in the EIS, NASUWT, AHDH, SLS and Community will join forces once again to defend, improve and secure the conditions of service of all teachers working in the Scottish Education system.

Collective action is at its most powerful when we support each other. In future we must maintain a unified front if we are to succeed.

Now more than ever you need to know that your union will support you. We will continue to listen to you and advocate for you.

 Your union puts your needs first, we are here to insist on better conditions for you.

The SSTA is invested in Secondary Teachers!

Teachers are invested in Secondary Education!

Thank you for hearing what I have to say!