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The loudest voice in the land

As the EIS gathers in Dundee, David Henderson reflects on the union's transition from Tory foe to Labour buddy

THE Educational Institute of Scotland's general secretary will today (Friday) rise at his union conference in Dundee and remind delegates about the strength of the union. Membership remains buoyant, its voice continues to be heard where it matters and teachers have a pay and conditions package that is envied across Britain.

As ever, Ronnie Smith is sure to refer to the latest talk of union mergers and there will be the usual caveats about workload, assessment, class sizes and the difficulties in the classroom day in, day out. Mr Smith will stress the dominance of the EIS and its powerful defence of teacher interests.

A Labour Government, a Scottish Parliament and substantial injections of cash have changed its outlook from perpetual opponent to partner in delivering a modern education service.

The union campaigned vigorously for a parliament and cleverly emerged an early winner through the McCrone agreement, a deal that would have been impossible under Westminster rule.

During 18 years of Tory administration, it was frozen out: now it sits alongside the Scottish Executive and local management in a still tentative relationship. Employers believe that bringing the union in from the cold will lead to long-term benefits, even if some say teachers have taken the money and run from much of the McCrone detail. Headteachers complain they are waiting for the return in professional commitment.

"There is a bit of a gap between the rhetoric of the national body, which is positive and upbeat about the McCrone contribution to school improvement, and the reality on the ground which is at variance with that," one influential head says.

The agreement has pushed the union back into the consciousness of individual teachers since collective school deals are essential to the new spirit. Reps work harder for their colleagues, where they can be coaxed out of the woodwork.

In the activist ranks, ageing by the year, they are still grappling with the positional change and find more consensual tactics a discomfiting encumbrance. In a climate of fading militancy, only 36 per cent bothered to vote in the North Lanarkshire ballot on the 35-hour week and those that did rejected the prospect of a dispute.

Other than in the troubled further education sector, talk of industrial action remains the equivalent of the nuclear option. Genuine concerns about Higher Still assessment could yet escalate into mass revolt.

The ultimate threat of action can, however, bail out the leadership when necessary, helping to shift what seemed previously immovable stances.

"But I sometimes wonder if the people representing the union represent the vast majority," one local authority negotiator says. "The EIS leadership needs to be clear whether it's up for change and not a stand-off of traditional views and values. It's a cultural change we need to go through."

Another comments: "The vast majority of ordinary teachers do not give a stuff and are more interested in getting on and doing their job. I would say 85 per cent are blissfully unaware of what is being done on their behalf."

Other managers have found EIS local negotiators helpful and professional. "You have got to take the union with you," one says. "It means dialogue and it's not restricted to two or three meetings a year. It's the ability to pick up the phone and get a view.".

Others believe the EIS is far less flexible than other unions and continues to regard itself as separate from other local government workers, something of the dichotomy between the professional association and trade union.

It guards its patch intensely and remains reluctant to share the reins with other educational unions. "It keeps its arm round the power," says one critic, who finds senior officials "extremely obstructive and difficult to work alongside".

On a professional level, the EIS tradition endures of reacting to most initiatives and following the three-part manoeuvre of opposition, amendment and compromise.

As one observer comments: "It has never really succeeded in distinguishing between educational policies and the implications of them for salaries and conditions of service. No educational idea can ever be given more than a 'cautious welcome' and many are bombed out because of a mere suspicion that they could impact on members' conditions."

Over the years, anything from stronger parental involvement to 5-14 national testing, the technical and vocational education initiative (TVEI) and classroom assistants have been first contested and then accepted. "The first reaction is negative, they never talk about children and initiatives always need more money," a cynic says.

A former member left over 5-14 testing. "The EIS started out against national testing at P4 and P7 and now we are testing all the time. It's not in the interests of pupils and teachers," she says. But cuts in class sizes were a significant achievement.

"The ordinary teacher thinks they do not do much for them and sometimes they seem to regard themselves as the employer. But most people are members in case you get taken to court and sued," she said.

Another countered: "The ordinary teacher has a lot of confidence in the EIS. We are very vulnerable at the grass-roots. There is the danger of litigation, difficulties with parents, violence in schools and a strong union is a comfort."

The union itself is in transformation, gaining plaudits as an accredited training provider through its e-learning initiative on training staffroom reps and continuing professional development.

But the major challenge remains - how to support members on a local level when McCrone needs fixing. It's making the insurance policy work.

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