Dogged defender of the secondary corner

9th May 1997 at 01:00
David Henderson and Neil Munro report from the SSTA's congress at Aviemore

Bill Guthrie is famous for his changing suits, hair style, sideburns and affection for Lanzarote. You need to know these things to feel at home in the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association. Otherwise you would not have a clue what Joe McKelvie, the union's treasurer, was on about when he glanced at his new president and observed: "Elvis is alive and well and living in Dundee and Lanzarote."

Mr Guthrie, assistant principal biology teacher at Perth High, is a jovial 46-year-old who embarked last Saturday on a two-year stint as president. He presided over its annual congress in an acting capacity, his predecessor being debarred because she is now a full-time union official.

An activist of long standing, his reason for joining the union was simple: it provided the best service when he was a student at the then Dundee college of education in 1973. He quickly became union rep at Morgan Academy in the city, where he developed some expertise in organising rota strikes during the pay dispute of the mid-1970s.

Mr Guthrie is not, however, an SSTA ideologue. His wife is, after all, a primary teacher (and member of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers). Indeed he once famously led an abortive move to set up a primary teachers' section, provoking accusations that "I wanted to recruit my wife".

He says: "We are not anti-primary or anti-FE but pro-secondary because each sector has different conditions and therefore interests." He adds, however: "A reduction in primary class sizes is of relevance to us because of the benefits it is likely to bring to learning and discipline right through into secondary".

If the new president's answer to the question "why the SSTA?" is clear, he is equally clear on "whither the SSTA?" Despite his benevolent attitudes to the other sectors, it is ironically the politicians' new-found emphasis on investment in the early years which is alarming the association and reactivating its mission.

The union's job over the coming months is to ensure that money is not spent on primary schools at the expense of secondary education, Mr Guthrie says. The answer has to be extra investment all round.

As he put it in his conference speech, the solution needs "imagination and lateral thinking". His answer to how "education, education, education" is to be funded is "Britannia, Trident and the lottery". Although he believes strongly that the lottery "robs the poor to pay the rich" by encouraging gambling among those who can ill afford to do so, Mr Guthrie says the annual Pounds 1. 5 billion proceeds must be seen as an extra resource for education. "I was initially against the idea but there is no point in being a purist and suffering," he observes.

His own suffering has more to do with the effect on his career of union activities; he has been in his present post since 1979. His attempt to go the whole hog and stand in the election for general secretary ended in failure when he came bottom of the poll. The presidency of the union is some consolation, doggedness in defence of secondary education his next test.


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