I suppose any period of 12 months in the annals of any trades union would be described as being “difficult”.
However, I would contend that the last 12 months have been particularly challenging as we have tried to come to terms with some fairly serious internal matters. It is as a consequence that I address you this afternoon slightly surreal as I imagined my days of Presidential addresses or General Secretary reports were well and truly over.
Sometimes a phrase sets the tone of our years work. Were I to choose such a phrase my choice would be “in good faith”. I used this phrase in relation to Pensions when I took over duties as acting General Secretary. It is a phrase that I continue to use and indeed a phrase increasingly used by trade union colleagues. I would have to say to you that keeping good faith has been a cardinal principle of this Association since our inception. Of that I am inordinately proud. At no time would this Association fail to act in good faith.
Therefore, during the last session, Council took a very courageous decision. It decided that the Work to Contract for which we had balloted was inappropriate given the ongoing negotiations with Scottish Government to obtain a soft landing for the UK Pensions negotiations. Now nobody embodies political cynicism greater than I. In simple terms, we regard all politicians of all parties dealing with Scottish education with the greatest of suspicion. We have witnessed in the SSTA over the decades too many examples of broken promise; too many pieces of political posturing; too many instances of cheap vote chasing. Why would the attempt to secure a Pension soft landing be any different?
Now let us be clear. We are not deluded into believing that Scottish Government is entirely motivated by its wish to secure a reasonable public pension settlement. It is obvious that an impending independence referendum must clearly influence a posture of defiance against the UK Treasury. In a sense it is a 2 way bet for politicians. Concession wrung out are a victory for Holyrood; intransigence from The Treasury and no concessions a defeat for Westminster. Fine, that’s “real politik” and we will have to roll with some of these punches.
However, the teachers’ side and our members will not be treated like patsies by any Government and, I am sad to say, we have increasingly been given the impression that that is exactly how we have been regarded. The Teachers side position is abundantly clear. Treat us with good faith and we will treat you with good faith. Do not attempt to indulge in elaborate kidology and cast yourself as honest broker in negotiations unless you are an honest broker. Consequently, we may well re-engage our industrial action and indeed we may seek your permission to escalate. The “prize” in all of this has been made clear. We have made concessions in terms of UK Government case of affordability BUT we still hold dear the concept of a mechanism whereby teachers in the future can retire at 65. We simply cannot imagine the prospect of teachers with compromised health struggling on beyond that. That fight continues and thanks to Fiona Dalziel for taking my place in these negotiations in the difficult post September situation in which the Association found itself.
Moving on from Pensions, I have to report to you that, almost as an unintended consequence of the wrangles I have just described, the UK and Scottish Government not widely known for their unity of purpose have been jointly responsible for a huge achievement. They have done what has in my view never been done before and that is to bring the SSTA and the EIS closer together on an issue that affects all teachers.
Now, Congress, with the help of all our powers of crystal ball gazing let us try to gaze into the future. Peter Wright, the Immediate Past President took us there at the end of last year’s Congress with, you will recall, Motion L. Well Motion L, calling as it did for co-operation between teachers unions and passed by last year’s Congress has been rigorously followed up. As we gaze into the next 10 years let us be clear the landscape we shall occupy as a teachers’ union is a completely different one from the last ten years. There is a worrying animosity to teachers out there - much more than in the past. We must – that is those representing teachers – re-position ourselves to withstand the attacks from Holyrood and COSLA, from GTCS and Learning Scotland, from ill informed parents and out of control youngsters. Is it not absolute folly to expend our energy fighting unwinnable turf wars against each other? Is it not suicidal to allow the real adversaries to exploit the differences that exist between teacher organisations and engage in a divide and rule strategy? Is it not a missed opportunity of cataclysmic proportions to fail to work progressively with colleagues in other unions? Surely what we must do is establish who our allies are in the next ten years and forge with them common purpose. Our allies should be obvious – other teacher unions; a properly informed parental body; an ethical free press unrestrained by “Ministry of Truth” tactics; a motivated and well-behaved pupil body. I should dearly like to say that our Employers and Scottish Government are our allies too. That is what we dream of in the progressive society teachers are attempting to create, a society which allows our members to act as professionals in a properly collegiate environment not simply as the factotums of COSLA and Scottish Government; not just those who meekly perform the bidding of the great and the good. But professionals whose views are adopted, not ignored; whose professional opinions respected not derided; whose expertise is valued not rubbished; whose skills are built upon not distilled into crude performance indicators used to beat the profession up.
I am delighted to report to Congress that this Association and the EIS, on the basis of Motion L and our mutual experiences of the last 12 months have formally met on a number of occasions and had constructive talks on sharing targets, of having joint positions, of making joint public statements.
Over-riding these meeting has been the concept of yes, good faith. We have each presented good faith to the other. We have each agreed to put aside as far as we can the sometimes trivial differences that exist between us and concentrate on the challenges that await us in the next ten years. Many of you, probably most of you, will have enjoyed close, mutually supportive relations at school level with the EIS. I certainly was fortunate in having that as a school rep and as District Secretary in Inverclyde. It is this kind of relationship we wish to achieve nationally and the sound of that bugle call WILL be heard by those who have wished to divide us in the past, knowing that fault lines on the Teachers’ side only give them the advantage. We cannot give ANY advantage so hostile is the landscape that we foresee in the future. All of this, all of the working together, the whole of the alliance is based on good faith. I guarantee that this Association will act in good faith, that is where this Report started today. I am confident that colleagues in sister unions are similarly committed. Congress, Operation Torch was the joint US/British attack on N. Africa. Before then 2 ideologically similar nations avoided joint action. The coming together of these nations in an alliance against the enemies that confronted Britain may have saved the world from the greatest evil. I ask you Congress to support this, our alliance, an alliance in support of teachers, let us commit to working as closely as we can with other unions to plan our own D-Day invasion. Without such an invasion I fear frankly for the survival of teacher unions as we know and love them and without teacher unions we are lost!!
Congress, finally, may I take the opportunity to thank all of you who have helped me in the last few difficult months. Obviously office colleagues have been invaluable. Both Admin and Secretariat team have been supportive of me and patient with me. Without that I would have been lost. Office bearers, Executive and Council too have given me huge support. Thank you all for that. Let us hope Congress that in the coming period we can at least secure some stability and good leadership that will allow us to advance into some pretty hostile landscape.
For further information, please contact
Acting General Secretary
Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association
West End House
14 West End Place