Bull toad day in the EIS canefield;Opinion

9th April 1999 at 01:00
Zoology has always interested me since I loitered on its fringes while at university. A television programme recently revived my curiosity (pretty dormant these days) about creatures that are able to survive under the most extreme conditions.

One in particular had an honourable mention for keeping going even when everything else is heading in the opposite direction. The bull toad, an exquisitely ugly piece of amphibian flesh, can survive long periods of drought covered in dried mud. A few spots of rain and up it comes, bounding along the river bed. I thought immediately of the Educational Institute of Scotland's annual meeting.

The great she-elephant of educational trade unions in Scotland runs the risk of becoming a white elephant. Worse, of becoming a national treasure. My definition of this is that it changes little within itself and changes little round about it. It means, too, that it will produce material that may contribute something to the gaiety of nations but little or nothing to their wisdom, much to its stockholdings of archives and more to the death of forests.

More depressing, it means that when its members gather, their reflections can be safely ignored as just another establishment body gushing on about its concerns and interest. In short, it can be taken for granted.

This struck me as I skimmed through the strategy paper for the meeting in June. The EIS has developed a style in the presentation of its bulletins and public statements of intention and policy that is markedly different from the hot and bitter words of the seventies and eighties. They have become virtually unreadable.

I find myself hard pushed to find the best word around that fits their often portentous tone. There is a PC pomposity about the strategy paper that brings on for me that old remembered gagging feeling from Strathclyde Region days.

I wonder how many members seized eagerly upon it in staffrooms over the country, dissected it carefully for relevant nuances, called impatiently for union meetings to discuss it, analysed it animatedly. The appropriate word for which I struggled by the way is "boring". And if you want to add insult to injury the strategy paper does not exactly line up with conference motions, and so presumably with the membership's aspirations.

Conference can be a heady business. I found it so a number of years ago when I attended one. Even preparing for it can be as heady. The prospect of association even for a few days with like thinking people mostly skewed in your direction can be exciting, but may do little for creativity or imagination. It can degenerate into a hobby horse gallop along the same track.

This year is no exception. Motions range from bureaucracy to bus routes, from osteoporosis to outcomes (learning), from HMI to Higher Still. The 5-14 programme does not escape. The Baron Samedi of curricular endeavour remains the bete noire of the Glasgow local association. That particular eccentricity sticks in my throat but the motion from Aberdeen instructing the executive council to campaign through the Scottish parliament for the abolition of denominational schools, by which it means Catholic schools, sticks more so.

That's what I mean about the bull toad. A few spots of rain, a sense of freedom, and out trundle the old outmoded ideals and the war cries of ancient conferences. The strategy paper includes some reflections on inclusive education. Just what inclusive ever means is elusive, but Section 7 indicates that it has something to do with a more open and egalitarian society, something to do with recognising the contribution and value of all participants, something to do with equality and co-operation, something to do with the multicultural society we live in.

I would have thought that in a soon to be devolved Scotland this meant something to do with live and let live, with recognising that differences must be respected, with celebrating diversity. Clearly the Loons and Loonettes haven't heard about that yet, even if they wanted to listen to it. The agenda-makers of the annual meeting should have.

By the way. One more thing about the bull toad. It will swallow anything.

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