SSTA Congress 2016 - Presidential Address

Welcome to the 72nd Congress of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association.  It is both a pleasure and a privilege to stand here today in the company of so many hard working colleagues, both from within the Association and from kindred organisations, near and far.

Before I begin I would like to express my gratitude to my employers, North Ayrshire Council, and to my school, Kilwinning Academy, for the flexibility they have allowed me over the last year to represent the Association at a wide range of events.  I am glad that I have also still had time to be in school, working with youngsters alongside my colleagues in Pastoral Support.  In this way I have continued to experience classroom successes and challenges first hand, and I have been able to lead on whole school projects which have benefited the whole school community.

I am proud to tell people that I work in North Ayrshire.  It’s one of 7 local authorities receiving a share of the Attainment Scotland Fund.   In 2015 more pupils achieved higher tariff qualifications at SCQF levels 5 and 6 than ever before. In particular, in 2015, S4 pupils exceeded the National performance in Literacy and Numeracy, with 60.5% achieving SCQF level 5 in Literacy and 51% in Numeracy.  Nearly 96% of leavers moved on to positive destinations – three points better than the national average.   In an area of multiple deprivation these are figures to be proud of, but there is no risk of complacency. North Ayrshire Council has set itself targets to provide better mental health support for young people, establishing nurturing approaches in all of its schools, getting parents more involved in young people’s learning, focusing more on senior phase planning to improve outcomes further, developing partnerships with colleges and businesses and other providers for the senior phase, and continuing to develop new monitoring and tracking tools.

My school is also a source of personal pride.  Kilwinning Academy has worked hard to become a school which nurtures its pupils, it is in the process of working towards becoming a UNICEF Rights Respecting School, teachers and pupils are deepening their understanding of restorative approaches, GIRFEC is at the heart of the school’s values.  The staff in the school are hardworking and well-motivated and this is reflected in young people’s attainment.  It’s worth noting that many of the school’s teachers are SSTA members!

The motif of this year’s Congress is ‘Supporting Leadership in Teaching’.  One of my main tasks this year has been collaborating with a working group to revise the Association’s constitution.  While this may seem rather an abstract and arduous task, it has enabled me to think about the Association’s role and how it can best serve its members.

The stated objects of the Association, contained in its constitution, are to advance Scottish education and to safeguard and promote the interests of secondary teachers in Scotland.  But what does this mean for the SSTA in 2016?

Although I’m an RE teacher, I’m going to start with a short history lesson about the great Scottish philanthropist and steelmaker Andrew Carnegie, born Dunfermline in 1835. In Scotland Carnegie is remembered for returning to the people the fortune he made in the form of public halls and libraries, and in the United States Carnegie is remembered for establishing teachers’ pensions and endowing educational establishments.

A man uniquely and ruthlessly possessed by technology and efficiency, Carnegie tirelessly worked to reduce costs and undercut competition in the steel industry.  Making the most of 19th century technological advances Carnegie invested in his state-of-the-art steel mills to make them the most modern anywhere.

Carnegie's timing was perfect; there was massive demand in the US for affordable steel.  New bridges and skyscrapers were springing up throughout America and the blossoming of steel led to more jobs, national growth, and comfortable lifestyles for many.

By applying a modern business model to a fledgling industry Carnegie took advantage of unregulated opportunities to amass a huge fortune worth billions in today’s money.  His personal success is undoubted and almost without parallel. Arguably, it is to his credit that he sought to return what he had taken from the workers, and a century later we still benefit from those unfortunate steelworkers’ labours.  But it is a huge mistake to imagine that the application of business practices to education will produce the results Carnegie achieved.

Carnegie’s success came at a price for Carnegie’s employees: cheap steel resulted in lower wages, longer working days, less job security, and the end of creative labour. While Carnegie’s steelmills may have been efficient, they were not healthy or safe places to work.  Carnegie's drive for efficiency cost steel workers their unions, control over their own labour, and sometimes their lives.

During the Easter break I attended an Education International conference.  Uniting all teachers and education employees, Education International is the global federation of teaching unions and represents over 30 million education workers.  The principal theme of the conference was ‘Protecting and Promoting Education as a Public Good.’    Let me explain what this title means.  In recent decades there has been a move to return to the less regulated age of the early Victorians such as Carnegie.  This deregulation has created many entrepreneurial opportunities but it has also added volatility to global markets.  At its Easter conference Education International sought to highlight the risks presented by the Global Education Reform Movement, which has been given the rather apt acronym GERM by the renowned Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg.   Spreading rapidly like a virus, the GERM threatens the teaching profession by prioritising and imposing a business model on education. As this movement strengthens its position on the global education stage it poses a real threat to high quality public education.

By turning education into a business, the GERM seeks to promote:

  1. competition (between schools and between teachers);
  2. test based accountability;
  3. performance related rewards; and
  4. attacks on teacher unions.

Education in countries all over the world is finding itself under the cold hand of education 'reform' which is diminishing public schooling, promoting privatisation and destroying teacher professionalism. The GERM aims to produce a narrowly educated workforce, which can read instructions and advertisements but is discouraged from thinking critically about the world. There is strong and compelling evidence from the OECD itself that the application of market principles to the provision of education has a negative impact on student outcomes by deepening segregation and inequality, but many governments continue to pursue the liberalisation of education.

Organisations promoting these reforms are no small fry:

  1. the World Bank;
  2. oddly, the OECD, despite its own contrary evidence;
  3. some governments;
  4. and private corporations.

Let me give you one example. At the Education International conference Pearson PLC, the world’s largest education company, came under close scrutiny.  Pearson operates in more than 70 countries providing learning materials, assessments and education-related services to governments, schools, teachers, parents and students – it’s a kind of ‘one-stop’ shop.  Pearson’s mission is to “empower people to progress in their lives through learning,” and in doing so it seeks to earn a significant return on the $5trillion spent on education annually and globally.  In 2015 it generated a cool $1bn profit.  However, despite its claim that Pearson is helping to improve student learning outcomes and increase access to quality education by being a “profitable and cash generative company,” Education International argues that Pearson’s current business strategy is undermining the fabric of public education.

The question that arises is: how can the public interest be supported by edu-business when profit making is their bottom line? To create a market for its products and services, Pearson’s global business strategies are being designed to identify ‘problems’ for national education systems that they can then attempt to ‘solve’ on a for-profit basis.  Inherent to this global business strategy are concerns and contradictions impacting on teacher quality, the right to education, democratic schooling, social justice and equality.

Examples of Pearson products include:

  1. high-stakes testing: it administered 50m standardised tests in the US alone last year and is the company at the centre of the controversial SATs tests in England,
  2. and it provides ‘support’ for low-fee private schools in countries such as Ghana, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Philippines, where in many cases underqualified, underpaid, non-unionised teachers read out standardised lessons word for word in classes of up to 90 pupils.

Presenting itself as an educational expert, Pearson is unelected and unaccountable to anyone except its shareholders.

So what we are seeing is that the mechanisms used to propagate the GERM and infect education systems globally include: testing, technology, the weakening of teacher’s collective professional voice and corporate capitalism.  While the for-profit companies may appear outwardly philanthropic, there is another inside story.

When education becomes infected by the GERM it is viewed as an opportunity to maximise human capital, abandoning education’s role of creating cultural good and social cohesion.   The audit and accountability culture of the GERM takes education out of the hands of those who create it and own it (teachers, students, and the public) to develop a commodity which can be traded globally. Education becomes a service sector, open to trade and investors. This view of education is about profit not people, for example developing education technology for capital.

In parts of the UK the GERM is evident in:

  1. fragmentation of education provision through ‘academies’ and ‘free schools’;
  2. marketisation and competition;
  3. growth in standardised testing and ‘league tables’;
  4. the end of the national pay framework in England and the introduction of performance related pay; and
  5. privatisation of education services.

It is worth noting that countries such as Finland have resisted the GERM and, as a result, the education system in Finland is considered to be the best in the world, with compelling supporting evidence.

We are not immune to the GERM in Scotland: one only has to look at the Easter egg left by private finance in Edinburgh’s collapsing PPP schools.  Thousands of pupils were locked out of fairly new disintegrating buildings which had been built cheaply to maximize profit, and PPP schools continue to represent a drainhole for local authority budgets.  Audit Scotland tells us to expect the PPP bill to rise from £500m/year to £600m/year over the next ten years.  We are seeing a narrowing of our senior curriculum reducing choice.  The Scottish government is seeking to introduce standardised testing. Through the Trade Union Bill, we have a government in Westminster which plans to create a much more difficult working environment for trade unions. And in our schools the idea of a principal teacher is disappearing rapidly.  I invite you to think about the words ‘Principal Teacher’ – what do they mean?  They indicate the person who takes the pedagogical lead in the way that a subject is taught.  Now I am not about to criticize Faculty Leaders, many of whom are hardworking successful SSTA members, but what exactly is the idea of a Faculty Leader?  I’ll tell you, it is a managerial role invented to oversee numbers, quality, resources, with subject expertise loosely bolted on.  Local authority employers are keen to fit teachers into their corporate visions and policies.  The model of assessment currently promoted by the SQA is a managerial model, taking approaches to assessment which deny the value of teachers’ professional judgement.  If private finance can bring down schools, it can bring down education.

Be vigilant!  Profit makers are prowling all around our education system seeking out what they may devour.

The SNP Election manifesto states that, “We will… create new educational regions to decentralise management and support,” giving headteachers, parents and communities more responsibility for schools in their areas.    On the face of it this may indicate a commitment to move control of education out of the hands of 32 disunited local authorities into a far smaller number of regional education boards.  But, as Henry Hepburn, writing in the Times Educational Supplement 3 weeks ago shrewdly observed, “It all has the uncanny echo of the rhetoric behind England’s free schools and academies,” and we all know what a great job Nicky Morgan has been making of that.

We need to cherish the values we have in Scottish education and protect what we have with all our might:

  1. no academies,
  2. no free schools,
  3. no marketisation,
  4. no standardized testing,
  5. no published league tables.

We must grip tightly to our Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers with its national pay and conditions framework, and our publicly funded education services.  The SQA may have its faults but it is not a for-profit organization, and we can and do talk to it about exams and assessment.  It is not a company seeking to maximize profit which will protect its shareholders’ interests at all costs.  The GTCS, protecting Scottish teachers’ standards, is a listening organization, not perfect but not private.  It does not supply evaluation tools to schools in return for payment, but invites teachers to work together with their colleagues to examine their own professionalism.  Education Scotland, not for profit, employing teachers to support, visit and inspect schools.  Parents and carers have a right to be included in Parent Councils, and we need to uphold the work of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council and the National Parent Forum of Scotland.  SEEMIS, aged and slow, desperately needing money spent on it, is the property of Scotland’s local authorities and is not lining the offshore pockets of shareholders.  Funding gaps are no excuse for allowing profit makers to position themselves as experts and offer solutions profitable only to themselves.

By way of contrast, perhaps as an antidote to the GERM, 17 new global Sustainable Development Goals were unanimously adopted at the United Nations General Assembly Summit in September 2015.

Dubbed “Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda Sustainable Development,” these goals aim to end poverty and promote healthy lives for all, to achieve gender equality and promote decent work for all, to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education, to combat climate change, to achieve free, stable and secure societies where the blight of poverty and ignorance are eliminated. Education International led the way in ensuring that there is a standalone cradle-to-the-grave goal on education calling on governments to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”

Significantly the education goal includes, among its aims,

  1. increasing the supply of qualified teachers,
  2. ensuring equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable,
  3. increasing the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship,
  4. ensuring that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults achieve literacy and numeracy,
  5. ensuring that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development,
  6. building and upgrading education facilities that are child, disability and gender sensitive and provide safe, non-violent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all.

These are lofty goals and worthy of our admiration, but they hinge on getting the right culture in global and local education.  In my own school this year I have been working closely with colleagues and youngsters to achieve our Recognition of Commitment as a UNICEF Rights Respecting School.  This is the first step towards embedding rights education in the work of the whole school and I want to commend the Rights Respecting School Award.  UNICEF, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, was established in 1946 to support children suffering as a consequence of world conflict. Since 2006 over 4000 UK schools have been working with UNICEF on putting children’s rights at the heart of education, and the award is based on 5 principles:

  1. equality,
  2. dignity,
  3. respect,
  4. non-discrimination and
  5. participation

It’s easy to see how these principles correlate to the Sustainable Education Goal.
Because these five principles sit so close to the beating heart of the SSTA, I believe that as a union we should be embracing and supporting this award.  Research has shown that schools which have rights at the heart of their practice are happier, more fulfilling places for everyone to work, staff and pupils.  It has a positive impact on relationships and behaviour, pupils are more engaged in their learning and develop more positive attitudes to diversity, young people respect themselves and others more, and there is a big reduction in bullying and exclusions.
Don’t mistake children’s rights to be a charter for children to do what they want.  By learning about rights, youngsters begin to understand that by enjoying your own rights you need to take care not to violate other people’s rights.  And every child has the right to an education that develops their personality, talents and abilities.

As a member of Education International, working with other agencies, governments and stakeholders the SSTA will play its part in working to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals over the next 15 years.

However, one of the biggest barriers to achieving high quality publicly funded education at the present time is workload.

Two of the big questions of the last 12 months have been:

  1. Why does teaching no longer seem to be the attractive profession it used to be?
  2. Why is it so hard to recruit and retain teachers?

Ask any secondary teacher and they will tell you that the biggest disincentive is workload.  If we were to use a business term to describe workload we could say we have been experiencing an overheating bull market.  In fact there has been so much bull that some teachers have been considering industrial action, some teachers have quit, and others are reporting unreasonably high levels of stress.  These are not simply features of Scottish education; where teachers are to be found so are rising and overwhelming levels of workload.

Teachers often tell me that it is simply impossible to achieve all their duties within the time available, and as conscientious beings they sometimes push themselves beyond the limit.  Tasks undertaken voluntarily in the past have become expectations, and the mantra is always, “it’s for the benefit of our pupils.”  The relentless drive to raise attainment is taking its toll.  Teachers are natural philanthropists, always keen and willing to do their best for our pupils, but if it comes at a cost to our own health and safety then that cost is too high.

Our Congress motif last year was “Teacher working conditions are pupil learning conditions.”  If there is the political will, Scotland has an opportunity to lead the way in promoting teacher well-being.  Education International will be collaborating with the OECD on a research project investigating the stress experienced by teachers in their professional lives and strategies to enhance teachers’ well-being.  My challenge to the newly-elected Scottish Government is to work with us to make Scotland the best country in the world, not only in which to learn, but also in which to teach.

As union activists we have a significant leadership role to play in education.  This is a positive, collaborative role which seeks to improve workplace relationships and job satisfaction.

At the end of 2015 the OECD published a report entitled ‘Improving Schools in Scotland.’  One of its recommendations was that there was a need to “Strengthen the professional leadership of CfE and the “middle”.”  There has been some discussion about what this actually means, but in my view it is reminding us that as teachers we are all leaders of learning.

For the benefit of those who have not yet got round to reading all of its 176 pages, the report says;

“We call for a strengthened “middle” operating through networks and collaboratives among schools, and in and across local authorities. We see leadership best operating not only in the middle but from the middle and indeed see an extended middle as essential to allow CfE to reach its full potential. Yet, so far as the local authorities are integral to such a development, there needs to be complementary action to address and overcome the gaps between the high- and low-performing authorities. This is another important element of “closing the gap”.

There needs to be clarity about the kinds of collaboration that work best to bring about the innovations and improvements to enhance student learning, and to create coherent and cohesive cultures of system-wide collaboration. This is not an argument for mandated collaboration or contrived collegiality to implement centrally-defined strategies. But it is to argue for greater consistency in collaborative professionalism and of moving towards the higher quality collaborative practices that have the most positive effects on student learning.”

Teachers are tired, we are seeking renewal.  There are so many challenges for us to wrestle with and the temptation to fall back into resigned acquiescence is strong.  School staffrooms, once lively hubs of discourse and freewheeling development opportunities, are barren places, uninhabited and unused.  Some PPP schools have even been built without staffrooms!  What does this tell us about the state of the profession?  Teaching needs fertility, it needs to have a sense of prosperity.

No-one can deny that we are living in an age of change. Teachers will not be satisfied sitting back, hoping everything will be alright while feeling unsure what to do.  We can’t leave it to other people, hoping that someone, somewhere will get it right for us.  Teaching unions, the SSTA included, need to gather together in strength to resist the forces which seek to drain profit from education.  Working globally we must collaborate with other unions to lead education into a publicly funded, politically accountable future. This is not an ‘us and them’ situation with our colleagues in other jurisdictions, we are all ‘us’, teachers seeking to provide the best possible education for young people.

As union activists, our role is to be visible, to build relationships, to be risk-taking bridge builders and skyscraper architects who are ready for an unknown future.  None of us here has any more time or energy than our colleagues back in school, but we are willing to make the sacrifice, to give what little time we have, to use our skills and remaining energy reserves to stand up for rights and what is right and to make changes.

What happens when people refuse to adapt to change?  Looking around the room, I ask, when did anyone here last load film into a camera, or play a cassette, check out a reference book, or look up their destination on a paper map? CD players have come and gone, DVDs are on their way out, I have GPS in my watch, Google is ubiquitous, and we can watch last week’s TV programmes without having to work out which tape we recorded them on!  Even cold hard cash seems to be on the way out.  Society has embraced social media, smartphones, online news, catch-up TV, and cloud storage.

Think of Kodak, once synonymous with photography, one of the biggest corporations in the world, great at what it did. George Eastman, Kodak’s founder, was the Carnegie of image storage, and yet Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012.  To survive Kodak was required to ask itself whether it was a film business or photography business.  Recently the Independent newspaper published its final print edition, after questioning whether it was a newspaper business or a news business.  Apple Inc, which started out in the business of making DIY computers, creatively morphed itself into a communications corporation, imaginatively developing products which consumers didn’t even realize they needed.

Unions are great at protecting their members.  Recognising this, and the inevitable risks inherent with working with young people, teaching is a highly unionised profession.  But we need to have a good long think about how we do it and why we do it.

As a union we need to ask ourselves, what is our mission, what direction are we heading in?  Why do we do what we do?  We need to be in a position to recognize the changes that are taking place in education and to be prepared to support leadership in teaching.  We cannot simply hark back to the good old days when things seemed to be better, we need to be agents of change, questioning methods and seeking to move education forward, not getting stuck but morphing creatively.

It is tempting to go about our business in the way that we have always done, reacting and responding, but as teachers we need to step forward and start setting the agenda.  Continuing the work we have started by making connections, we have to clarify our mission, extending invitations.  We cannot assume that the world knows what we are about.  The future is at stake!

Jelmer Evers and Rene Kneyber, writing in the book ‘Flip the System’ which was published earlier this year, discuss the issue of power and education.  They describe an alternative for state control, moving towards a democratic professionalism that seeks to demystify its work and build alliances between teachers and other stakeholders.  This means, as identified by the OECD in its Scottish report, that there is a need for teachers to lead from the middle.  They state that, “there is a strong need for teachers to connect and to reflect on the purposes of education, and to think and act coherently in terms of their teaching methods.  That is, we believe teachers as a profession should generate a new ‘language of education’, to strengthen education against external forces that threaten a good education for every child.”  To illustrate this they flip the 5 layered pyramid of accountability with government at the top and teachers at the bottom, replacing teachers at the top.  In the first pyramid teachers answer to every layer above them (what can the teacher do for me?) whereas the flipped pyramid generates questions such as ‘how are teachers doing?’ ‘what do they want?’ and ‘what can I do to support them?’.  Evers and Kneyber also explain that, because teachers are supported in a flipped system, they need to take the lead.  Teachers do not wait to be told what to achieve and how to achieve it; instead they show leadership in the how and the what.

Many local authority employers are no longer in a position to provide a strong lead in education; Audit Scotland reports that in just 3 years local authority net spending on education reduced by a whopping £5.3bn.  Where once local authorities could call on a small army of advisers and seconded teachers, they have neither the staff nor the money. A huge amount of their time is taken up with coralling the meager resources remaining to them and seeking to make managerial efficiencies. What about government? The National Improvement Framework first popped out of the offices of the Scottish Government in September 2015: there was no prior discussion with any teacher.

Despite assurance from Government and Employers that they are taking workload issues seriously, there has been no letup in the pace of change.  One of the hardest things about working in the public sector is that when politicians seek improvements, the simplest answer is to expect employees to work harder for less.  We are seeing it with the junior doctors in England, we see it with education in Scotland. Teachers spend too much time on paperwork which is required to justify or defend their actions.  Efforts to tackle bureaucracy are still not generating the time advantages teachers need.

Teachers need to challenge the managerial view of professionalism, the GERM.  Writing in ‘Flip the System’ Howard Stevenson and Alison Gilliland explain that teacher unions have a powerful role to play in articulating teachers’ collective and professional voice both in protecting and campaigning for the pay and working conditions of their members and also critically commenting on a very broad range of educational issues. We must move from being background noise into being a strong recognizable presence, we need to have our fingers in every pie and all over education.  When you look at the second last item on our Congress agenda you can see the SSTA is there, engaging with education bodies at all levels. It is just a short list of some of the people the SSTA meets with, but that needs to be replicated locally through teacher representation on school parent councils and through local political pressure groups.

Now is the time to seek organic growth, not from the kind of sterile managerialism which seeks to weigh the pig daily and analyse its feed, but the kind of shoots which spring from experienced green fingers.  As leaders, working together with our colleagues in other unions, it is our duty to aspire to grow together.  That growth needs to be deeper, more focused, more positive, more centered on educational excellence.  Our understanding of what we are as a union will grow from protection and support into a new era of educational leadership and cooperation.

If the SNP Election commitment to create new educational regions goes ahead, we as a union must form a democratic view on what such education regions might look like and get involved.  We have a recommendation from the OECD and from Scottish Government to lead from the middle.

This is our time for teachers to flip the system, for teachers to get involved in leading teaching, for teachers to wrest control from the politicians, the bureaucrats and the profiteers to enter a new paradigm where public education is led by teachers, parents and young people. Parents and pupils are our strongest allies, our biggest supporters and our most honest critics.  We work with them, and we work so hard, because we believe that every child has a right to an education.  We do not work hard so that politicians can point to their own success or so that shareholders can enjoy a better return on their investments.  This could be the opportunity we have been waiting for to make the whole of Scottish education truly excellent.

With education in crisis, teachers are in a powerful position.  We can buckle under the pressure, or, as the SSTA always has, we can choose to lead.  Colleagues, I wish you a very enjoyable and engaging Congress.


For further information, please contact

Euan Duncan

Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association