Brenda Bleackley

23rd December 2011 at 00:00
When the EIS backed a contentious national pay deal that put the chartered teacher programme on hold and paid supply teachers below the going rate, this teacher used Facebook and other social media to set up a new union for disaffected members - the Scottish Primary Teachers' Association. Photography by Drew Farrell

How did the SPTA come about?

We had teachers really disappointed with the (national pay and conditions) deal, upset with how that happened. I remember being excited when there was a revised deal. Then I saw it wasn't really any different - that's when I started having questions.

Wouldn't it be better to work within a larger union?

I tried. When I tried to become more active locally within the EIS earlier this year, my initial attempts to get information were not responded to. I wanted to know how local delegates intended to vote on AGM motions, but didn't get a response. I recall sitting at the AGM in June, hearing calls for members to become more active, and realised the opportunity to do so varied across local authorities. I decided within days to begin a union.

Does the SPTA have trade union status?

We're certified by the trade union office in Scotland, so in that sense we are an official trade union. I know some people keep saying we're not. We haven't registered with the trade union body. That's something we'd look to do once we're more established.

What do you offer members?

A direct line to the leadership. We don't have a hierarchy of people a member must consult if they have a question or concern - they contact the interim council directly, and we take it from there.

How many members have you recruited since forming in August?

I'd really rather not say.

Can we put a ballpark figure on it?

I'll say less than a hundred, but we're gaining members all the time. I know that there is an association that was offering free membership until January, so soon you will maybe have some teachers rethinking where they want to go.

How would you describe the profile of your members?

Quite varied. We've got members nearing retirement, a couple of student teachers, and a mixture in the middle. Most are full-time teachers in permanent posts.

How many SPTA officials are there?

We have an interim council of three.

Do you plan to have elected officials and move into headquarters?

Come spring, we intend to have an AGM and get people elected. Headquarters would come once we're more established with our membership and numbers. Right now we're running this over and above the jobs we do every day.

It must be a lot of work.

When they froze the chartered teacher programme, I was in my third year. I thought, "Well, if they're saying chartered teachers aren't worth the money, then I'll concentrate on this union."

So the time you were devoting to chartered teacher you now devote to SPTA?

Yes. I'd rather do this and try to make a difference for teachers.

Are you happy with progress?

I think so. We've got a really good core membership that will see it through. No one has joined on a whim.

What are the short and long-term aims?

Short-term, to raise our profile a bit more with (Finance Secretary) John Swinney, and to do a recruitment programme with schools. Some people have heard about us but I don't think everybody has. Long-term, direction will come from the AGM.

How effective can you be when you're not part of the SNCT?

Given what happened last spring, I don't think the EIS was very effective. If we can apply enough pressure in different ways, we will be heard.

Why did you seek a meeting with John Swinney over pension proposals, rather than balloting like other unions?

All our members - we did a survey - are unhappy with the proposals. But we also asked them if they wanted us to ballot at this time, and, in light of the other circumstances particular to a new union, it was thought it would be better to try to engage in conversation with John Swinney.

What do you mean by `other circumstances'?

For a union to ballot on industrial action, legally you need to be in dispute with your employer - to be unhappy with somebody is not the same as being in dispute with them. So there was a chance that, had we had a ballot, it could be found that we weren't in dispute, because we hadn't made the case, we hadn't met with anyone. I don't think that risk could be taken.

So it was to avoid legal complications?


Have you had a reply from Mr Swinney since you wrote to him two weeks ago?

We haven't. (Mr Swinney later declined the request to meet the SPTA, saying it was not appropriate to meet individual stakeholders at this time.)

The EIS's Ronnie Smith said `fragmentation of teacher representation plays into the hands of management and increases the risk of targeted attacks on vulnerable groups within the teaching profession'. How do you respond?

His organisation has been responsible for the fragmentation of the profession, allowing different groups of teachers to be treated so poorly, letting the Government give them a big kicking.

What would persuade SPTA members to disband and rejoin the EIS?

I don't think anything would.

Personal profile

Born: Canada, 1973

Education: BA English literature and political science and BEd elementary education, University College of the CaribooUniversity of British Columbia; PGCE autism (children), Birmingham University; PGDE professional enquiry, Stirling University

Career: Taught in England, Falkirk and West Lothian, and at an independent school for children with autism. Currently specialising in autism at a Stirling primary.

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