Report of the General Secretary- 79th Annual Congress of the SSTA

The SSTA is entering its 80th year having been established in 1944. The focus of the SSTA was and still is, secondary teachers and secondary education. Over the years the SSTA has dealt with many challenges but throughout its journey it remained true to the position of its members. The SSTA is a very principled union but also a pragmatic one.

The SSTA Has never accepted that things cannot be changed but has worked to find solutions to problems, impasses, or stubbornness of others. The SSTA is a teachers’ union that identifies a problem or can foresee a problem and attempts not only to highlight the problem but is prepared to open discussion with new or different ways to find a solution. The ability to think ‘outside the box’ or question the ‘way things are done’ shows a union that is confident and understands the bigger more important picture. The SSTA must be prepared to stand up to the challenges and be the solution not the problem and it was this way of working and thinking that brought about the SSTA in 1944.

The education landscape in Scotland is in a period of change, some will say that has always been the case, changes that will impact on secondary teachers not only in the short term but for a generation. The changes to assessment and examinations, the future role of the SQA, the future role of Education Scotland, the future of school inspections, the future of the curriculum for excellence, the future of the senior phase in secondary schools, just to name but a few.

All this in a climate of austerity when teachers only know of cuts and further cuts, a plethora of new initiatives all reliant on the ‘goodwill of the teacher’ when graduates are turning their backs to teaching. All this leads for more workload for teachers who are left behind is schools trying to teach pupils with an ever-increasing complex learning needs. Hence, the importance of the SSTA in giving a voice to the thousands of secondary teachers who are isolated from decision making and are always left to ‘pick-up the pieces’ and make things work.

The SSTA is adamant that whatever changes that are to come in the education system must have teachers at the centre and must be a support to teachers in the classroom and not a hinderance. The SSTA will ensure that the teachers are at the centre of the new SQA, Education Scotland will be there to help and support teachers in the classroom.

A new inspection system that supports schools and not focus on the individual teachers and the very different challenges they face. No two schools are the same so why waste time trying to compare and measure things that are different. The fear of inspection is rife in our schools. The fear of inspection is often used as a control mechanism to squash innovation and enthusiasm. It stifles teachers and learning as the focus is about getting higher exam results at the expense of everything else.

If we are to have an inspection system lets inspect those who have the control. Those who control the money, the staffing, and the curriculum. It is a nice notion to believe that schools are autonomous body but that is far from the truth. Everything in schools is prescribed by those above. All that schools do is try to manage to do more with less. Therefore, I say if we are to have inspections then let them inspect those who have the control - the local authorities. This would take pressure off schools and teachers and allow teachers to focus on teaching and learning.

The SSTA challenged the SQA’s plan to revert to the national qualification pre-pandemic requirements in 2024 on two fundamental grounds. The pupils are not ready and most importantly the teachers are not ready. Schools are still addressing education recovery; pupils moving into the senior phase are not in the place they need to be if they are to meet their true potential. However, we do know that both teachers and pupils have struggled this year and I fear that many pupils will either under-perform or fall away from education. The SSTA was the only voice against the return to pre-covid arrangements, but I hope we were wrong, but I fear not.

Poor pupil behaviour remains a major issue for SSTA members and my thanks to members who responded in their thousands to our surveys on pupil behaviour. These surveys helped in pushing the issue to the top of the agenda and not just swept under the carpet. Together with the mobile phone survey that gave real evidence of the disturbance caused by the misuse of mobile phones in schools.

Teachers are employed to teach, and pupils are in school are there to learn and develop into the citizens of the future, but teachers and pupils are not equal. Teachers must be allowed and supported to establish an environment of learning and respect for all. In that environment there must be a level of responsibility expected by pupils to maintain the learning environment and there must be consequences if they do not.

The SSTA survey showed that 88% of members said half their lessons in the week were interrupted by mobile phones. We were also told that 72% of schools had mobile phone policies but only 9% were effective. Teachers are then left in the untenable position of enforcing a policy without the certainty that they would be supported should it become necessary.

I highlight this issue because this is not just happening with mobile phone policies, but I suspect, is also happening to many other school policies. I visited a school where poor pupil behaviour was an issue and met the Headteacher and asked about the ‘on-call’ system. The system that is there for when teachers are having difficulties in the classroom and was informed that 75% of ‘on-call’ requests are not responded to as other more important issues needed to be dealt with. This scenario can be seen in many schools as they do not have sufficient staff to support teachers in the classroom. The result is a demoralised teacher who has lost confidence in the system and respect from their pupils. There is nothing more important that supporting teachers in the classroom and that must be the focus in the future. A policy is a policy if all make it work if not it is just a piece of paper.

The SSTA is deeply concerned about the lack of progress in our negotiations with employers regarding the pay claim for 2024-2025. It's frustrating that despite submitting our claim in January and reiterating our request for a 6.5% pay increase for all SNCT grades, we have not received any pay offer from the employers.

Our recent meeting with COSLA on 1 May revealed that they are "not ready" to make a pay offer yet, citing ongoing discussions with the Scottish Government. They appear to be determined to break the Scottish Government’s policy of maintaining teacher numbers, when not only should they be maintained but increased at a time when the need is at its highest shows a lack of respect to the teacher workforce and their commitment to the pupils in their schools.

While I understand the economic pressures at Scottish Government and at local council level the reluctance to move forward and make a pay offer and entering meaningful negotiation is leaving teachers feeling undervalued and unappreciated.

The Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers (SNCT) is a tripartite committee, the teacher unions, the employers, and Scottish Government all sitting down together as equals to negotiate teachers’ pay and conditions for improvements to the education service. However, when the teacher unions are used as a political football between local and national government there must be a change in attitudes of the parties involved to reach pay agreements and improve the conditions of the teacher workforce. This ‘bickering’ not only undermines the SNCT but feeds a political agenda that is far removed from the needs of the children in our schools.  

This delay is unacceptable, especially considering the upcoming academic year starting in August 2024. It's crucial that all parties work together to achieve fair treatment and recognition for the hard work and dedication of teachers across Scotland.

Furthermore, COSLA's role in the delay of implementing the reduced teacher contact time policy is concerning. The recent Education Workforce Modelling and Research Report, falls short in understanding the complexities of teacher allocation and workload. The report's failure to acknowledge differences between primary and secondary teachers or those in special schools weakens its findings and hampers any effective policy implementation.

The figures do not include the registered number of teachers in Scotland and the scope for encouraging teachers back into the profession. The employer’s reluctance to have all its teachers on permanent contracts. Measures encouraging teachers not to retire early, objecting to job-share and phased retirements all reduce the number of teachers available to introduce the government commitment sooner rather than later. The SSTA does not hold the document as definitive, and it should not be seen as an excuse not to implement the 90 mins sooner rather than later.

The way forward

The SNCT must be made to work where all sides come to the table with good intentions to improve our education system by working to retain and recruit teachers. This goes hand in hand with managing teacher workloads and focussing on teaching and learning. The SNCT must not be the block to improvements and if employers cannot meet the challenge, then they should get out of the way.

The situation would be helped if all the money allocated by the Scottish Government was used for education at local council level. That means ‘ringfence’ education funding and ensure it is spent on education. In addition, Scottish government must ensure not only maintaining but increasing teacher numbers and ensure these are fully funded. This would hopefully, stop some of the wrangling that takes place between COSLA and the Scottish Government and let teachers teach.

As the SSTA, we must continue advocating strongly for our members' interests. We need to push for meaningful negotiations that address not only the pay claim but also workload issues and working conditions. Collaborating with other teacher unions and stakeholders will strengthen our position and ensure that our voices are heard.


Friday 10 May 2024