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Global goals of a teachers' union

In 2005, Nelson Mandela and the former Chancellor Gordon Brown gave their support to the Make Poverty History campaign and its launch led to a commitment by the Educational Institute of Scotland to "bring every child in the world into school". This marked a vital step forward to further international goals from an agenda restricted to the domestic context when the institute began work on September 18, 1847.

The strength of the EIS has been to promote worthy professional and welfare concerns, and these have been an integral part of policies from the Victorian era. The institute's establishment was the product, in the 19th century, of its relationship with the English College of Preceptors, now the College of Teachers. The preceptors had been founded in 1846 in Bloomsbury, London, by a group of private teachers to promote sound learning and to expand exams in the theory and practice of education, particularly among the middle classes in England.

The setting up of the EIS was a reflection of the poor pay, conditions and status of teachers, as well as educational standards. The 600 delegates meeting in Edinburgh in 1847 came from diverse backgrounds and cut across denominational and other spheres, with the largest single groups being Free Church teachers.

There was early evidence of conflict between the aims put forward by the institute and external interests. School managers were reluctant to act in partnership with the EIS, especially as their profits were at risk from pressure for better wages and better conditions. The Church resented the potential absence of religious and spiritual influence on education.

The EIS became committed to the ideal of a self-regulated profession. It introduced degrees and remains the only trade union to offer such awards. The institute's diplomas served as a form of competition against the government certificates awarded by the Privy Council. But opposition from the overbearing control of central government at Westminster impeded progress.

The institute was denied the power to act as the single arbiter in Scotland to award the licence to teach, so the diplomas were not so highly respected. By the 1870s, the EIS was still being refused the right to be the official General Teaching Council for Scotland. It had to wait almost 100 years to become the dominant voice when an independent GTC Scotland was finally set up.

The EIS embodies the unionism professionalism debate in which unionism is seen as a way of devaluing professional behaviour. The evidence is that members have not been very interested in the wider policies of the union, but preoccupied with salaries and conditions.

While the EIS has been seen as an effective trade union, it has been criticised for being negative and passive. Today, it still wields significant powers in Scottish education. But it has now gone well beyond the domestic confines of 1847. Its central mantra of "promoting sound learning" has an international and a political significance, as well as an educational one.

Richard Willis

is research fellow at Roehampton University and author of 'The Struggle for the General Teaching Council'

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