Peebles Hotel Hydro
7 May 2010
It's been thirteen years since an SSTA Congress coincided with a UK General election.
The result then was rather different from the one we face today of course. But, whatever judgement History finally makes on the events of the last thirteen years, there are one or two lessons for us as trade unionists and of course not a few consequences also.
For obvious political reasons, none of the party leaders have been totally frank about how our huge public debt may be paid back or the consequences for taxation and funding the public services.
However, for a worst case scenario we need only look at our teacher colleagues in the republic of Ireland...
Our teacher trade union colleagues in the Irish Republic tell us that Irish teachers have now suffered a 19% reduction in salaries over the last year. That includes cuts in salary and increases in pension contributions.
In addition, there has been a quite disgraceful and sustained campaign of vilification and demonising of the public sector and public sector workers by elements of the Irish media.
Things may not get that bad in the UK but it is safe to say that the Public services will be under pressure as never before. Teachers' salaries and pensions may well come under attack here also.
For the avoidance of any doubt let me say this now: this Association may have its differences with other trade unions about particular issues but when the fundamental interest of secondary teachers is at stake and when our members give us a democratic mandate to do so, we will defend those interests and in their defence we will make common cause with any other trade union. We cannot and will not accept a cull of public education to pay for private sector stupidity and greed.
I said earlier that I would return to the theme of trade union democracy. As the events of last year demonstrated, the membership of this Association chooses our most senior salaried official. However, we cannot rest on our laurels. We need to find ways of further enhancing member engagement in the Association. I am confident that the new recruitment and engagement committee chaired by James Forbes will do just that.
We now have a new General Secretary with a strong democratic mandate to implement change in the operational culture of this Association.
We are rightly proud of the service delivered by our administrative staff and Professional Officers at HQ. When I am at HQ, I work at a PC in the general office and I hear our office staff's response to every telephone call that comes in. They do so with unfailing promptness and courtesy and they go out of their way to ensure that the member is given every satisfaction. I know that emails receive exactly the same degree of care. Our office staff deliver a truly personal service and I thank them now on your behalf.
I have also discussed members' cases with all of our Professional Officers and I know how effective their intervention and support can be for secondary teachers who need trade union help. They too deserve our thanks.
Teachers who are not members of this association would be astonished at the level of service and care offered by the SSTA. We need to be more forthright in telling them about those values of service and care.
However, a side effect of all this is that this Association has perhaps allowed itself to become rather inward looking and that our members have perhaps become more reliant on the centre than is desirable?
The challenge which the new General Secretary, the Headquarters team, Council, Executive and Congress must rise to is to preserve the old strengths of the SSTA and at the same time develop new strengths by responding to the requirements of members for support and expertise when and where the members need it most whether at school level, at District level or by contacting SSTA Headquarters.
In addition, there is the constant challenge of doing so while at the same time ensuring the best possible value for the subscriptions which our members pay us in return for the services we deliver.
Some initial progress has been made in the right direction:
The SSTA website has been joined by a Facebook page for our new to teaching group. Some members of the N2T group are with us today at my invitation.
All members have received frequent newsletters, either to schools, via school representatives or, in the case of around 900 members, to home addresses.
In finance, our new General Secretary has devolved budget heads to HQ staff with a mandate to deliver best value.
The Association's Finance committee has also exercised stringent control over the Association's spending such that it has been possible to freeze subs this year.
It is early days but the direction taken and our destination, is in clear focus: this Association is run for and by its members and it is their money which funds every penny we spend. This Association will never forget that simple fact nor will we forget that our priorities are set by the needs of the membership: classroom teachers trying to deliver high quality education in contexts which all too often conspire to frustrate their efforts.
In that respect, the SSTA is now returning to what we have always done best and which once caused a journalist to describe us as "Scotland's most combative teaching union". We will work cooperatively with good employers and managers but those who fail to support their secondary teachers will find the SSTA knocking on their door. Those employers who treat their teachers as commodities, to be discarded when considered inconvenient, should take note.
As I suggested earlier, democratic accountability is at the very heart of the Association's values and that fundamental value continues to inspire our actions in every sphere.
For example, the GTCS is a vitally important national arena in which members of the SSTA have attempted to push forward our principles. SSTA members who have served on the Council know that they are accountable to the secondary teachers who elected them.
Thus, the issue of independence for the GTCS must mean a genuine independence from all external influences while remaining accountable to the teaching profession and, of course, still mindful of the wider public interest.
There is however, an unfortunate tendency on the part of some who are elected to serve on the GTCS to forget this.
This was never more strikingly illustrated than in the current Scottish Government proposals to give the GTCS the power to re-accredit Scotland's teachers.
One might have imagined that teachers, elected by their fellow teachers, would have greeted this proposal with a degree of circumspection. However, the convener of the council has welcomed these proposals ...
'In welcoming today's Government statement, Council Convener, David Drever, concluded:
"We feel that the proposed changes can only enhance the work that we already do and open new areas for the GTC Scotland to explore."
However, at least the Convener was elected by teachers.
The Chief Executive of the Council is an appointed official whose not insignificant salary is paid by teachers and teachers alone. What democratic mandate does he have for stating as he did in the GTCS magazine ...
"We will look carefully at promoting collegiate leadership in schools..."
"We will consider the implications of CfE for registration categories."
As a former member of the Council, it pains me to say this but teachers are now beginning to perceive the GTCS as little more than an employers' stooge which does absolutely nothing for classroom teachers other than lift £45 out of their pockets once a year. No wonder the turn out in the recent election was only 16.54%, a drop of nearly 6% on the previous election.
And no wonder also that Cathie Nicol, supported by the SSTA came top of the poll last year. She actually said she would try to do something for classroom teachers if she was elected! And more power to your elbow Cathie!
But the most significant illustration of the continuing importance of the SSTA and our values is in the development of Curriculum for Excellence.
When SSTA officials met with the new Cabinet Secretary on January 6th of this year, he conceded a fundamental truth that secondary teachers have a different perspective on the curriculum.
Other organisations may deny it but there is a fundamental difference between the function of the primary sector and that of the secondary sector.
Certainly, both exist in order to deliver a broad general education to our young people. The secondary sector is thus reliant on the efforts of our primary colleagues and I would add has therefore no interest in diminishing those efforts in any way. Rather the reverse holds true.
However only secondary teachers add the vital knowledge and understanding and skills which can only be delivered by subject specialism and only secondary teachers prepare those young people for national qualifications leading to employment and further and higher education and the world beyond.
This explains why, from day one and to this day, the SSTA has responded to the concerns of secondary teachers and sought to hold to account and scrutinise the various proposals associated with the Curriculum for Excellence. Regrettably, other organisations have tended to ignore or minimise those concerns.
For example, at the February meeting of the Management Board for CfE, following motions passed at SSTA Congress last year and December Council, I tried to persuade the Board that pupils sitting subjects at level 4 no less than those at level 5, deserved the respect and additional re-assurance of quality provided by an external assessment set by the SQA. The representative of another teaching union argued against this.
In the past year I have visited many secondary schools in Scotland and I have yet to meet a single secondary teacher who considered this proposal to be sound in terms in terms of the negative message it may give to children in that crucial middle group of ability, far less in its potential impact on secondary teacher workload.
The SSTA's serious concerns about CfE has led to not one but two surveys of teacher opinion. One by the SSTA and the Scottish Government. This was offered to us by the Cabinet Secretary at our meeting on January 6th. After that survey was announced, the CfE Management Board decided that teachers should be consulted directly about CfE. What an amazing coincidence.
Let's be clear about this: without the SSTA, teachers would never have been consulted at all.
Secondary teachers have been telling us from day one about their concerns over CfE. We told the Scottish Government that the outcomes and experiences were inadequate. This led to one review and apparently everything was fine. 79% of teachers who responded to our survey disagreed.
We asked our members if they required additional resources to implement CfE. 88% said that they did.
We asked our members where the main problem lay and 90% told us that it lay in the lack of assessment materials.
We asked our members whether they had been adequately consulted on timetabling and curriculum models for CfE. 71% of the survey told us they had not.
67% of the respondents told us that their schools' curriculum model either enjoyed nil support from them or only a small amount of support.
73% agreed that communications from local authority, LTS, SQA etc had been neither effective nor supportive.
But far more telling than mere numbers were the responses written by our members.
One in particular summed up the fears and frustrations of secondary teachers ...
"It seems the tail can wag the dog. Secondary education does not work that way. To mix metaphors, I'd like to keep the baby in the bath water but know what washing and drying equipment is to be used and what clothes have to be prepared to dress the baby."
I took these results to the CfE Management Board on 22 April. The key item for discussion was whether the new national qualifications, still three years ahead, needed to be delayed. The SQA deadline for beginning this process is the end of this year.
Other organisations have asked for a year's delay on the grounds that secondary teachers need more time and more support and that is certainly true.
But is is equally true that the issues go beyond this.
We know why secondary teachers are not fully behind CfE.
It's because much of it is mince!
And after a year's delay, mince is still mince! It just reeks a bit more!
The position I took that day was based on a categorical statement by the Cabinet Secretary that he was "absolutely committed to solve the problems" and it was conditional on SSTA members' concerns being addressed. It was not, in even the remotest sense, an endorsement of the fully rolled out CfE programme. I stated that a delay in the examinations was not necessary "at that stage."
I granted, if you like, a stay of execution only.
I also believed that there was the potential, in the days that followed for the Cabinet Secretary to talk to us in an effort to address the issues highlighted by our members. And not only by SSTA members. The HMI report which was presented to the meeting is now in the public domain and, coming from the Minister's own advisers, might be considered even more damning.
However, Mike Russell's subsequent press release and some of the content of media interviews he gave that day, showed not even a hint of the very serious issues facing secondary teachers before they can implement the full programme of CfE.
The decision taken unanimously by Executive the next day was the right decision. It reinforced the point that this Association's profound objections to some aspects of CfE did not change, has not changed and will not change.
CfE is, in a number of ways, a deeply flawed programme which is not yet fit to be rolled out fully in secondary schools. But our members have told us what the problems are and we have suggestions about how they might be addressed.
The SSTA did not create the mess that is Curriculum for Excellence but as a teachers' organisation which believes in collegiality, we are ready to be part of the solution.
I now call on the Cabinet Secretary for Education to remember his democratic accountabilities.
I call on him to accept that secondary teachers have legitimate, deep and enduring concerns. I call on him to accept that those concerns cannot be sidestepped nor can they be addressed by sound bites and media spin.
The SSTA's message to Mike Russell is: talk to us in an honest attempt to resolve the issues our members have identified. Our members, but more importantly our pupils and their parents deserve no less. The alternative to this is to abandon CfE altogether in secondary schools. The consequences of that would be serious but by no means unthinkable.
In other words, with regard to Curriculum for Excellence, the message from the SSTA is ...
"Mr Russell: fix it or ditch it."