Henry Hepburn

Teachers’ pay protest shows the passion of a French revolution

The determination of protesters calling for a teacher pay rise in Glasgow last Saturday reminds Henry Hepburn of national demonstrations in France in the 1990s

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One of the first political protests that I witnessed in person took place in France in 1995. People all around the country, from all sorts of backgrounds and professions, were up in arms about welfare-state reforms that were being led by prime minister Alain Juppé. Protesters took to the streets and went on a general strike, in what became the country’s biggest series of mass demonstrations since the epochal events of May 1968, when president Charles de Gaulle briefly fled the country amid widespread unrest.

One day, in Le Puy-en-Velay, the beautiful little town where I was working as an English-language assistant, protesters totalling about half the population of 20,000 or so marched exuberantly through the streets, oblivious to the chilly winter weather. Pupils walked beside their teachers, chanting anti-Juppé songs together. Firemen were acknowledged as the chief rabble rousers, and set up braziers in the street as totems for marchers to dance around and places for numb hands to get a few seconds’ warmth.

On that cold winter’s day in 1995, the coup de grâce came when marchers gathered at the prefecture – the local council’s headquarters, a grand old building, gated and set back about 50 yards from the town square. Farmers now took centre stage, as they propelled what they saw as the politicians’ bullshit back from whence it came, in the most literal way possible: huge cheers greeted the farmers’ homemade catapults, which sent sackfuls of slurry flying over the gates, to slap against the prefecture’s stately façade.

There was nothing quite as scatological when teachers marched through the streets of Glasgow last Saturday demanding an across-the-board pay rise of 10 per cent. Instead, many placards demonstrated the subtle wit and ingenuity you’d expect from a creative profession. “Down with this sort of thing,” proclaimed some, in an ironic call back to Father Ted (presumably, teachers are hoping for more success than Ted and Dougal had in attempting to disrupt screenings of risqué cinematic opus The Passion of Saint Tibulus).

Another placard called on education secretary and deputy first minister John Swinney to demonstrate a “growth mindset” on teacher pay – a demand surely lost on the average passing Saturday shopper, who presumably pays little heed to prevailing pedagogical trends. The most popular placard, going by reaction on Twitter, was this oh-so teacherly call to battle: “It’s time to use our outside voices.”

But all the wry humour should not be taken as a sign that teachers are any less serious than the protesters in France were all those years ago. There were wide-eyed reactions from protesters gathering in the George Square autumn sun when they checked their phones and discovered that those at the back of the march had not yet left Kelvingrove Park, some two miles away. They seemed galvanised by the confirmation that thousands of others felt the same way they did. Which was exactly what the EIS union wanted to see, as its ballot of members on the current pay offer – which it wants to be decisively rejected – opened three days later.

So what happened in France back in 1995? A few weeks after the march in Le Puy – and many others like it around the country – Juppé dropped the reform plans; he became widely reviled as France’s most unpopular prime minister of modern times.

I detected a doggedness among protesters in Glasgow similar to that which I witnessed in France. This didn’t feel like a single day of catharsis before teachers returned resignedly to the status quo. Whether it’s the 10 per cent pay rise that teachers are seeking, or the most significant industrial action undertaken by the profession since the 1980s, something big is afoot in Scottish education.