Keeping politics in the family makes for a close union

11th July 2008 at 01:00
Continuing our summer series in which members of teaching dynasties discuss what links and separates them in education. This week: Larry Flanagan, English teacher and education convener of the EIS, and his brother Pat, the union's area secretary for Aberdeenshire
Continuing our summer series in which members of teaching dynasties discuss what links and separates them in education. This week: Larry Flanagan, English teacher and education convener of the EIS, and his brother Pat, the union's area secretary for Aberdeenshire

There are only 16 months between Pat and myself and, unlike most Irish Catholic families, which were really big, there were only two of us. We had a sister who died when she was two and a bit, which perversely gave us the opportunity to go to university because there were not the same financial pressures.

I was the first in the family to go to university, even in the extended family. Our father worked in the shipyards. He came across from Ireland when he was 14. I thought I was Irish until I was about seven, because we went to Ireland for every holiday.

I was in the last "transition" class to go up to secondary - at that time they had two intakes per year for primary and my class went up in January. Pat's was the first not to have a transition class, so we landed up in the same year at secondary (St Mirin's Academy).

We had different friends - most tend to be your primary pals, initially, so because we had been in different classes, we were in different groups. I don't remember sharing a big social life - I used to go to youth clubs in Renfrew and Pat didn't.

I couldn't wait to leave after fifth year, and Pat did a sixth year. I was just done with it, and I think I was partly influenced by having a group of pals who were out working.

Initially, I wasn't going to go to university but after a year out, I applied to Stirling to do English and history. I went in 1974 and part of the reason I chose Stirling was the adverse publicity it received when some student protesters got into trouble for "toasting" the Queen with wine in '72 or '73 when she was opening a new building. It caused a great fuss - the students got banned from pubs in Stirling and the principal had a heart attack. I thought, "That's the place for me."

I first got involved in politics when Jim Sillars formed the Scottish Labour Party. I never did get to join, though, because a number of branches, including the university, were banned because they were being infiltrated by the International Marxist Group. So I landed up in the Labour Party. Then I got involved with the Labour Party's Young Socialists' militant group.

I was always very clear that my dad was a Labour man - he was involved in the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders' work-in at Govan. I was conscious when that was happening that it was his livelihood. But I couldn't say that one particular thing made me active politically.

Pat was living at home when he went to Strathclyde University and I was at Stirling. So as students we didn't have much contact with each other, other than at Christmas. It was a bit of a surprise he was involved in politics as well, but we never sat down and talked about it.

After university, I landed work in the MacRobert Centre as a stage electrician. I had applied for a couple of touring jobs with Scottish Ballet and if I had got them I probably wouldn't have landed up in teaching. Then personal circumstances led me to apply for a place at Jordanhill. I quite enjoyed teaching and I was also politically active, so it was a good career in that it gave you time to be involved in other things.

I became a councillor for Glasgow, so for eight years I was effectively part-time teaching - I used to get a minimum of four afternoons off for council meetings. Then the poll tax came along. A group of us got suspended from the Labour group sine die when we voted against the party line and refused to hand over housing records that would tell sheriff officers who had paid their poll tax.

After that, I was offered a two-year secondment as a staff tutor in multicultural and anti-racism education, on condition that I come off the council. The job meant I was going into primary schools, nurseries, pre-five groups, colleges and colleges of education. That was really the first time I got the big picture of cradle-to-grave education.

Pat's one of those guys who, if he fell into the Clyde, would come out dripping gold. He got a good settlement when he left Shell and picked up an IT job in Aberdeen until he went into teacher training and then walked straight into a teaching job.

I was pleased when he settled in Aberdeen, if for nothing else than his kids' schooling, but we didn't discuss work much. He was a maths teacher and they are kind of different. I might talk to him in confidence and ask him what's going on in Aberdeenshire, because it's quite a good authority and I might pick up ideas. I got him to help my kids when they were doing maths and I helped his kids with English, but that's the closest we've come to talking about teaching.

I would not do his job as area secretary. Pat seems to enjoy the day-to-day union work; I prefer the policy issues and I wouldn't give up teaching to be a full-time union rep. I actually think it's important as education convener to still be in the classroom.

He's got a very rational mind. He works through things logically and doesn't adopt a position, like me, through blind instinct. One of the huge skills he's got, having worked for a multi-national like Shell, is a lot more negotiating experience.

Pat Flanagan

Our mum came over from Dublin in her mid-20s. She was originally a seamstress and worked at an approved school for girls at Bishopton, the Good Shepherd Convent, where she was a sewing instructor. She used to take Lawrence and myself out with the girls sometimes - he's always been called Lawrence within the family.

I was a year behind Lawrence in primary but in the same class at St Mirin's, which was a senior secondary. I was in one of the last intakes before comprehensivisation.

After university, I moved to London and that was where I became involved in the Labour Party and Young Socialists. My father was never a member of a political party, nor my mother, but we had a strong moral upbringing. My dad was at the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, so it was difficult growing up at the time not to be influenced. For most people then, growing up in a working-class environment and being the first generation to go to university, it was not uncommon to have left-wing political views.

I worked with the Central Electricity Generating Board, and then for British Aerospace and Royal Dutch Shell, doing mathematical software development. I worked all over the world. From Holland I was sent here, to Aberdeen, for a project that was going to last three years.

My eldest daughter had started secondary school and the opportunity came up to take a redundancy package. At that time, I hadn't been thinking of retraining as a teacher - there was a big salary difference. My wife's from Jamaica and I met her in London, and this was the first time she had lived in Scotland.

I had worked for some time in the IT industry and I wanted to settle down from all the travelling. I had seen private industry and the big oil industry - in some ways it was a good working environment but there were some bits I didn't enjoy. Coming from IT, I thought I could do a year's teacher training and, if I didn't enjoy it, I could still get back into IT.

What was attractive about teaching was that it would give us stability of family life, and would involve working with young people.

I still retained an interest in mathematics as a subject, but it was more the prospect of working with young people that attracted me - the idea of being socially useful.

I retrained in 1994-95 at Northern College. When I started in the classroom, I had my challenges like everyone, but I was about 38 and there's a distance between you (and the pupils) age-wise.

I was very fortunate. My first job was at Fraserburgh Academy and I felt part of the department from day one. I was there until 2000. From there I went to Ellon Academy, then transferred to Meldrum Academy. Last year, the previous area secretary, Jack Barnett, became a national office-bearer and I got his job.

I miss working with the kids but I think the work I do as a local area secretary is quite important.

Lawrence and I are both on the National Executive of the EIS and on the council. The amount of time we would speak about EIS matters outside these meetings is fairly limited. We have the discussions there and that's where it should be.

There are differences between our subjects, such as the way they are assessed. With maths, you can be teaching kids different concepts between levels C and E or F from late primary to early secondary, whereas in English they're at different levels of the same kind of work.

In teaching, the fundamental thing is your relationship with children. I have never seen Lawrence teach, but if teaching is about individual relationships we are probably fairly similar.

When I was starting as a teacher, I was in a very strong department and I would probably have asked the principal teacher or an assistant principal for advice, rather than Lawrence.

The fact that Lawrence is education convener means he is a far more experienced teacher, plus he's been involved with the Scottish Qualifications Authority. He's got a depth of experience in terms of the EIS and teaching that I don't have. But we are who we are. We are not equal but both play a part in terms of our EIS and teaching commitments.

I would say I would look up to him without agreeing necessarily in everything.

As told to Elizabeth Buie.

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