Can a Derry exile bring peace?;Profile;John Patton

11th June 1999 at 01:00
As the EIS meets for a crucial conference dominated by pay, John Cairney profiles the union's new president and former council leader Elizabeth Maginnis (below) looks at the challenge of modernising the profession

WHEN A 27-year-old teacher and civil rights agitator from Derry flew to Glasgow in 1969 to begin a speaking tour of Scottish universities, he was welcomed at the airport by a Glasgow University student activist. It would have taken paranormal prescience to foresee that both would later hold the top elected position in Scotland's largest teaching union.

Yesterday (Thursday) the Irishman took up the presidency of the Educational Institute of Scotland where the former Glasgow student is in charge of one of the most influential committees.

Willie Hart, the Glasgow student, was EIS president five years ago and now it is the turn of his one-time guest, John Patton, a Clackmannanshire primary headteacher, while Hart continues at the helm of the financial and general purposes committee.

Mr Patton's quiet acoustic signature of Ulster vowels, untainted by 30 years' Scottish influence, and his understated delivery, do little to reveal the extent of his commitment to education in the broadest sense, from his role in the Irish Credit Union movement to tutoring photography at Glenochil prison, and conducting the first detailed survey in the mid-eighties of teacher stress, an achievement on a very small budget described by a former Central Region colleague as "a brilliant audit which revealed then what has been confirmed since in much more expensive surveys".

Born in Derry to a family of eight children, Patton attended St Columb's College, alma mater of two Nobel prize-winners, Seamus Heaney and John Hume. He recalls the "ideological hegemony exercised by the Catholic Church through the staff drawn from its military wing", an experience that might have had something to do with his opting for the non-denominational sector when he moved to Scotland in 1971 to a West Lothian primary.

A year later after two former pupils from his Derry teaching days were among the 13 killed by the Parachute Regiment on Bloody Sunday he went on a one-man strike and picketed the army recruiting office in Edinburgh.

For three years head of English at a secondary school in Zambia, he returned to teach in Central in 1976 and became head of Banchory primary in 1985, moving to his current post at Craigbank primary in Sauchie six years later. He served on the General Teaching Council for four years.

His union involvement started in Derry with the Irish National Teachers' Organisation. He relishes the fact that as the first Irish president of the EIS, his opposite number in Ireland is also from St Columb's - though the school may not acclaim that with the enthusiasm shown to Nobel laureates.

A member of no political party, his diverse heroes are Tony Benn, Julius Nyerere, Gerry Adams and Michael Forsyth. As a headteacher in the smallest local authority, he lacks a built-in EIS "constituency", but he will call on his skills, experience and optimism to lead the EIS in the inaugural year of the Scottish Parliament.

He says: "The new minister's recent comments show that he recognises that Scottish education is not in intensive care, and indicate an appreciation of the crucial requirement for progress to be made in harmony with teachers."

With typical understatement he describes the ongoing Millennium Review discussions on pay and conditions as "a challenge for all sides".

Squaring the circle on salaries and conditions and satisfying teachers' expectations in other areas would be an achievement for the quiet Derryman, even if it doesn't win him a Nobel Prize.

4H News TESJJune 11J 1999 John Patton: new minister's comments indicate an appreciation of the crucial need for progress to be made in harmony with teachers gerry mccann 'Most people don't give a tuppenny bun whether the SJNC exists or not. But its future, along with the length of teachers' holidays, has become the make or break issue for too many Scottish children'

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