General Secretary Speech AGM 2021

Created on: 11 Jun 2021 | Last modified: 11 Jun 2021

Colleagues, I wish to start by expressing a huge thank you to our 61, 232 members (and that is the highest membership figure I have reported in my tenure as General Secretary) for the phenomenal job you as teachers and lecturers have done and continue to do for Scotland’s children, young people and students.

Your dedication, your selfless sense of duty, and above all your sheer professionalism have been veritable lifeboats in these turbulent times for our children and our youth.

The importance of the teacher, the importance of school and education, to our society and to the common weal, have rarely been clearer.

And as we look ahead to an education led recovery, at the start of a new Parliament, I would urge or invite politicians of all parties to stop using education as a political football and to unite behind delivering the resources that teachers and lecturers need to address the needs of Scotland’s children and youth.

Education recovery should be, in fact it requires to be, a national effort – focussed on the health and well-being of children and providing the resources needed across all the education sectors.

It’s galling to read of new millionaires getting rich on the back of the pandemic because they are well connected with the UK establishment whilst at the same time, we have teachers struggling to find permanent employment despite the need for their skills.

In truth, there has been a paucity of investment in terms of education recovery. 1,400 teachers may sound impressive, and it is welcome, but it’s less than half a teacher per school. It is scratching at the surface of what is required if we are going to see a real education recovery. So, we need greater vison and greater commitment; we are only in the foothills of what is required.

In our manifesto we put the need for more teachers in permanent posts, front and centre of our demands, and it is perhaps a measure of our success that all the parties to varying degrees committed to additional teacher numbers. We need to see that delivered and delivered quickly, but, in the process we need to end the scandal of 1 in 10 teachers being on temporary contracts or worse, zero hours supply lists.

The Cabinet Secretary said she would “encourage” Local Authorities to address that, but frankly that is not good enough. We need regulation to make it happen, such as class sizes of 20 in P1-P3, which would immediately create the permanent posts needed. Or if that is a step too far, perhaps statutory provision of teachers in nursery would do the same.

The Cabinet Secretary said progress had been made but this is not the case, Permanent Teacher Roles have been stagnant for years.

So we do need to challenge Scottish Government and challenge Parliament to deliver on those manifesto promises.

As Kevin Courtney, General Secretary of the NEU alluded to yesterday, politicians are good are talking big and delivering small.

Scotland’s children and students can’t afford that approach. Covid 19 has had a devastating impact, exacerbating already deep inequalities in our society that as a nation we should rightly be ashamed of; we need to be serious as a society in addressing that challenge.

I want to add into that definition of politicians, the local councillors across the country who constitute the employer for most of our members.

COSLA’s report card over this past year would certainly read “could do better” - the treatment of supply teachers being just one example. Why do some Councils agree to pregnant staff working from home and others don’t; why do some provide CO2 monitors and others not? Teachers across the country do the same job and should have equal treatment from their employers.

I’m very mindful that next year will see local elections for Councils across the country and we need to look at how we campaign around those elections to secure local improvements and greater consistency of best practice across the 32 authorities.

Local authorities talk a big game about addressing workload.

Let’s not forget that COSLA is part of our tripartite SNCT and often a greater stumbling block in negotiations than Scottish Government – the current offer would amount to 1.2% as a universal increase; that is simply not good enough. Between Scottish Government and COSLA we want to see a vastly improved pay offer in the next few weeks. Value Education Value Teachers was not a one-off slogan, it was meant to be a mantra for how Scottish education works.

Colleagues – I thanked members generally, but I want to single out a smaller group for particular thanks and that is the activists who are the School and Branch Reps, the LA Secretaries, the Branch Secretaries, Health and Safety and Equality Reps, Learning Reps and so on. Tireless altruism in working on behalf of their colleagues is what makes us the EIS and allows us to support and organise members into an effective collective voice, because trade unionism is about standing together in solidarity.

I also wish to thank the EIS staff, all of whom have been displaced from their workplace for over a year now, but who have combined to continue to deliver a sterling service for members. Some of the videos you have seen today are testimony to that.

Colleagues I want to pay tribute to the FELA campaign around the defence of lecturer professionalism and more particularly to the members at Forth Valley College for their sustained industrial action on the same principle – 12 days locally as well as supporting the national action – they deserve a virtual round of applause for their courageous stand.

The EIS Is not afraid to flex its industrial muscle but we prefer constructive engagement, and we welcome the social partnership approach which generally applies in Scotland. We don’t always reach agreement but access to Ministers means that they are never unaware of what the EIS view is. That was certainly the case with John Swinney, and I hope it will continue to be the case with his successor. I was very pleased, therefore, that the new Cabinet Secretary was able to attend the AGM today.

Some of you may be aware that during the course of the year I was elected as European President of Educational International, ETUCE, and I know from that role that in many countries, teacher unions are locked out of deliberations. Indeed, I am sure that is how colleagues in our sister union the NEU feel about UK Government.

Thank you to the EIS for my nomination to that role. ETUCE is a federation of 127 education trade unions in 51 countries, representing in total of 11 million members all over Europe.

I will approach that role with the same practitioner perspective my 33 years teaching brought to my General Secretary role. The litmus test always being, does this help members in the classroom because if not, why are we doing it?

The simple reality is that as an education union we have expertise, knowledge, and insights which are critical to good policy decisions so we will continue to engage in that dialogue, to help politicians get it right for teachers, and for education.

The reduction of class contact time from 22 hours to 21 hours is very welcome. It has taken years of chipping away to achieve that.

Yesterday was the 58th meeting of the Covid Education Recovery Group (CERG) and incidentally it was the first one I have missed as I was here – although Andrea substituted for me.

We clearly haven’t achieved all our policy aims in that group, but we have never once failed to advocate and argue for the interests of teachers, and we need to continue to do that because despite a sense of matters improving the challenges remain very real.

The infographic published today, for example, shows the number of pupil infections to be at a record level – higher than even last January when we had a national lockdown - with 5-11 year olds being the biggest group.

Public Health Scotland would caveat that by saying more testing is being done and more asymptomatic cases are being picked up and there may be element of truth in that, but I cite the figure simply to say we need to absolutely stay on guard and continue to press for caution regarding the challenge of Covid and all its variations, as despite some optimism we are far from past the pandemic crisis. We know potentially the third wave is already with us.

We have also been involved directly in the NQ2021 Group, colleagues, and I would like to take a moment to clarify any misperceptions around this.

Clearly, there are significant challenges in delivering the ACM as the 3-month lockdown compressed, significantly, the time available for production of evidence. At the moment, teachers, and indeed pupils, are working flat out.

The key issue for the EIS, after last year’s algorithmic debacle (which we warned against repeatedly) has been to insist that professional judgement be at the centre of the model, and we argue that because as a teacher trade union we have complete confidence and absolute trust in teachers, our members, to exercise that role.

The EIS also insisted that it was for schools and teachers to decide what was appropriate evidence upon which to base professional judgement, that there was no need to run full “prelim” style assessments, and that assessment opportunities should not be one-off high stakes events.

All of this was actually agreed as the parameters for the ACM, but the position was undermined by the unilateral SQA subject advice which advocated for a different approach.

Indeed, we had argued that if the approach was effectively an internal exam, schools should simply package up the materials and send them to the SQA for marking. That was rejected by the SQA.

We proposed that S4 pupils be allowed to progress to S5, as 94% do, without the need for formal qualifications, to reduce workload pressure and to allow for more time for teaching and learning. That was rejected on this occasion by the Scottish Government.

We’ve said that Universities need to lessen demands around conditional offers so as not to disadvantage pupils – that hasn’t been taken up.

It is deeply ironic, bitterly ironic even, that the SQA is now trying to gloss its previous stance on “exams are best” to deflect criticism but, frankly, having tried to work constructively with the SQA within the NQ 2021 Group, it is not a surprise. As an organisation, I believe it is out of touch with the education system.

I welcome the announcement on the review of the SQA but frankly I am unsure about reform. I think replacement is a stronger option. We need a qualifications body which is accountable to the profession and not one which thinks the profession is there to do its bidding.

For the EIS, professional judgement is paramount, based on whatever evidence a teacher regards as valid. This week’s row is about the role of Local Authorities in the quality assurance process, and I have indeed received emails citing examples where departments have been told to unilaterally adjust their estimates, often based on comparisons with previous year’s performance. That is not acceptable. There is nothing wrong with asking a question, and indeed I am sure that every subject Principal Teacher in the country will have looked at previous results, but it is for teachers and departments, those who know the pupils, to decide the grades not the SQA nor the local authority.

I’m very well aware that there is huge anxiety in the system, and staff are exhausted, but I actually believe that students will be well served when the results are published – not because of the SQA nor Scottish Government nor Local Authorities but precisely because of the dedication and extraordinary effort of teachers and lecturers.

I also had an announcement last week regarding Education Scotland. I recall that in the first speech I made as EIS General Secretary I expressed concern about the then newly formed Education Scotland’s twin duty to both support schools and inspect them at the same time was a challenge; this proved to be the case. We need an agency, in my view, focussed solely on supporting schools and one step removed from the influence of Scottish Government.

When Learning and Teaching Scotland and HMIE were merged, most of the professional staff in both were forced to resign from the EIS and to join the civil service union as overnight they became an extension of Government. That should be reversed.

Colleagues, this has been a welcome AGM; debate and discussion is critical to our identity as a member led union

I’ve enjoyed connecting with members as working from home can be quite isolating, so thank you for taking part and for being here.

I’ll draw my remarks to a close with a brief reference to this being our 175th AGM and next school session our 175th anniversary year, the Institute having been formed in September of 1847.

That is a significant milestone, and we will be celebrating the event but let me finish by quoting from the sole written history of the early days of the EIS,” A Centenary Handbook of the EIS” by A.J. Belford.

The year is described in the following terms:

“1847! A year when men and women were suffering and brooding; when wild passions were fermenting under a peaceful exterior. Politicians and statesmen failed to gauge the destitution and despair of the population; in vain the plaintive voices and wasted forms of people appealed to despots and monarchs. Hardly had 1848 opened when the streets of Europe were streaming with blood.

It was in those days that the Educational Institute of Scotland was founded… but not merely for mutual benefit did those teachers associate; believing in the worth of human personality, they wished to proclaim the necessity for education and to establish the value of sound learning.”

175 years later the validity of those founding principles; mutual benefit and the value of sound learning, remain as current as ever.

These are turbulent times, colleagues, but we will emerge from them. It’s our challenge to ensure that Scotland and Scottish Education emerges to a better, more equitable, more socially just landscape.  Thank you for your contribution to that struggle, colleagues.