Larry Flanagan

8th June 2012 at 01:00
In the week of his union's annual general meeting in Dundee, the new general secretary of the EIS discusses the pensions problem, strike action, myths about the impact of the SNCT agreement and being an altar boy. Interview by Elizabeth Buie

This will be your first EIS AGM as general secretary. How will it feel to be looking down on the debates, rather than contributing to them?

It will feel odd not to be able to respond to the cut and thrust of the floor. I have already looked at the motions and picked out one or two I would like to be involved in, so it will be a challenge to my self- discipline. And apparently I have also to ensure my face remains impassive so as not to indicate my thoughts on the flow of debate. On the plus side, I get half-an-hour without a red light to do my general secretary's report.

How much hope do you hold out for a Scottish solution to the pensions problem?

I think it's crucial there is a Scottish solution - in terms of the UK strategy, we are in a difficult position because of decisions taken by a number of unions around maintaining a united front, but the Scottish government has been supportive in principle of the public sector unions, and teachers in particular. I think it's a real test for them.

There will be strike calls at the AGM - do you envisage teachers hitting the streets in the next 12 months?

I have already indicated in my communication to members on pensions that we have to be prepared to take industrial action on this issue. I don't think teachers take action lightly, but the success of last November's action, in terms of raising the profile of the teachers' case and achieving some, albeit relatively limited, movement from the UK government, was instructive for us.

Politically, you have been on the far Left - has age or experience modified your views?

Nobody ever asks me about being a senior altar boy. I still regard myself as being on the Left of politics in the party political sense, but for the bulk of my teaching career my energies have been committed to the work of the EIS as a trade union and we don't have a party political agenda, so it's the interests of members that drive my politics in the broader sense.

Do you want to tell us about being an altar boy, now you have got the chance?

Eh, no. Nothing bad to share.

You have represented the EIS on the Curriculum for Excellence management board for the past three to four years - what have been the biggest mistakes made?

I think the biggest criticism that could be levelled against the board - and by implication the Scottish government - has been the failure to communicate key messages to schools timeously. Around the senior phase, some of these key ideas are not clearly understood at local authority level and sometimes at school level, and that's led to a lot of the confusion and discussion that's taking place at the moment. I don't think it's helped that the merger of HMIE and Learning and Teaching Scotland to create Education Scotland came at an absolutely crucial time.

Do you think they took their eye off the ball?

I'm sure they would argue they didn't, but it was a merger of two large organisations, so it has to have consumed a fair amount of the time of the people involved. It's also led to an overall reduction in personnel that clearly affects capacity.

You complained about the superficiality of the audit - what should happen next?

The worry is how real and substantial is the ongoing support that Education Scotland offers. Some of the complaints we have had have been about inspectors being unaware that the Scottish government had committed itself to producing the course materials for Nationals 4 and 5 for next year. If the inspectors don't even know that has been promised, it just highlights the communication difficulties. They don't understand the context in which they are trying to offer support.

Did you back the cut to supply teachers' pay in last year's national agreement?

That was a secret ballot, but people in the union know I didn't support that package. But most members did, so that's the position we have got. We have to move forward.

Which myths you would like to explode about the impact of the SNCT agreement?

There is a kind of shorthand used around supply teachers that ignores the fact that the changes apply to short-term supply only. One of the pluses of the agreement was securing teacher numbers, and that has definitely led to more people getting long-term contracts - we reckon over 1,000 jobs. The main beneficiaries of those jobs were those doing supply work.

Do you miss not being in the classroom?

Absolutely. I have been back to Hillhead three or four times already. I took a couple of classes actually. I miss the daily contact with the pupils enormously - you get a laugh every day, there is always someone doing something that gives you a wry smile. Teaching is a very sociable activity because you are working with people all the time. I have sat in this office doing paperwork for 90 minutes and then realised nobody's chapped on my door and the bell has not rung. I am continuing to do Duke of Edinburgh with the school - not least so that my erstwhile colleagues can let me know what they think of the job I'm doing.

What's been your proudest moment in education?

I remember one year I had what was referred to as the Foundation class. They all managed to get a General award.


Born: Glasgow, 1955

Education: St Mirin's Academy, Paisley; BA in English and history, University of Stirling; PGCE, Jordanhill College

Career: Teacher at Blantyre High, South Lanarkshire; two-year secondment on multicultural and anti-racism education; senior teacher, Penilee Secondary, Glasgow; PT English, Hillhead High, Glasgow; EIS education convener, 2008-12; EIS general secretary, April 2012-present.

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