Biggest union calls for a truce to let Labour's revolution get under way

13th June 1997 at 01:00
David Henderson and Neil Munro report from the EIS's annual conference in Perth

The 151st annual conference of the Educational Institute of Scotland last week decisively rejected three left-wing calls for industrial action over cuts, Higher Still and pensions. The mood at Perth was summarised by Ronnie Smith, the union's general secretary, as "quiet and somewhat thoughtful".

The concerns of an ageing and stressed profession were reflected in the balance of the agenda on salaries and conditions. More time was spent in discussing changes to the superannuation scheme and ways to leave teaching than on pay and classroom practice.

Mr Smith said it was the first time in recent memory none of the decisions reached by the executive council had been changed or overturned. "It shows they are very much in line with the sentiments out there among the membership. "

He added: "There was a notable mood of realism among the delegates that the Government is entitled to have some time to begin the process of reconstruction after two decades. We have a new Government that has made a promising start. "

In his address, Mr Smith paid tribute to Scottish Office ministers for avoiding a "flurry of activity" during their first month in office and for "hitting the ground thinking rather than running".

He mounted a strong attack on those who claimed the Education Minister was not taking the active route pursued by his colleagues south of the border and distanced himself from any charge that the Government is in the union's pocket.

"The EIS is not Brian Wilson's poodle and to say so is to misjudge both the minister and the EIS," Mr Smith said.

Mr Wilson has agreed to meet the union on a quarterly basis each year and Mr Smith welcomed the prospect of a new relationship but said: "We neither seek nor expect favours. What we do expect is a recognition that two of the most important partners in education are the pupils and students and their teachers and lecturers.

"With due respect, everything else is a support act. That being so, it is essential that in developing our education service, the Government acts with and not over the heads of the teaching profession. Teachers are part of the solution not the problem."

Mr Smith made an unexpectedly strong plea for unity among the teaching unions to create a single organisation "which is unambiguously rooted in Scotland and which is inclusive, accommodating all shades of opinion and capable of speaking for all education professionals, whatever grade of post they occupy and in whichever part of the service they work".

As the EIS begins gingerly to explore a closer engagement with the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, Mr Smith said the advent of a Scottish parliament was another compelling reason for a fresh start. Six unions serving only 70,000 members from schools to universities was not a recipe for promoting the interests of education, particularly at a time when the lines between the different sectors were becoming blurred. "I do not believe there are great chasms among our policies or beliefs," he said. "But stating a policy six times does not make it six times more effective."

The union is comfortable with its own strength, however, as Mr Smith said its membership had broken through the 50,000 mark for the first time to stand at 50,185.

But the general secretary cautioned against complacency despite the union's strength and the change of government. He said: "The budget cuts, the insidious introduction of teacher supply agencies in some FE colleges, and the continuing casualisation of the profession could all bring downward pressure on our membership and I urge every one of you to be constantly alert to every recruitment opportunity."

The pressure on teachers was unlikely to diminish, Mr Smith suggested, and he announced a "stress helpline" for members. Former members, too, were increasingly relying on the union and 1 per cent of subscription income was now earmarked for those who had fallen on hard times - the same amount as the EIS ring-fenced for educational projects in the Third World. He added that the union's legal bill had gone up a half.

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