Mr Duracell keeps the union running

2nd February 1996 at 00:00
"If you are self-effacing as a trade union official, you will disappear off the earth. No official should epitomise the philosophy of the three wise monkeys," Tino Ferri contends.

The vociferous Scottish representative on the United Kingdom executive of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers could never be accused of shrinking from controversy or the public limelight, aided and abetted by his trusty home fax, whose missives are well known to news editors and education bosses.

With "Gentleman Jack" Duffy, his contrasting colleague, Mr Ferri has taken over the running of the union in Scotland following the lengthy absence through illness of Jim O'Neill, its Scottish official. Mr Duffy has been seconded by the NASUWT until March, while Mr Ferri is taking advantage of Strathclyde's generosity to devote three days a week to union business.

On the other two he continues to teach English at St Margaret's High, Airdrie.

His perspective on Higher Still (recently outlined in The TES Scotland) and the place of Scottish literature brought him sharply into conflict with equally belligerent opponents. Mr Ferri argued the balance was tipping too heavily in favour of Scottish literature at the expense of the broader perspective. "It would be possible for kids to go through school and never have opted for Shakespeare. The issue had to be raised because the kids should not be deprived of the choice," he said last week on the eve of the union's Burns Supper in Glasgow (Jotter, back page).

An outburst of anti-Ferri invective hit the letters columns of the Scottish press, backed by several personally abusive billets-doux questioning his right to comment on Scottish affairs.

Mr Ferri wears his Italian origins proudly. Although born and bred in deepest Lanarkshire, he spent several years at primary school in Italy, carries both Italian and British passports and continues to own a house in his parents' native land. "Italy is my mother and Scotland is my wife and I would not have a bad word said against either," he says. He speaks to his mother in Italian and when he speaks to Frank Pignatelli, Strathclyde's director of education, he has also been known to use their common ancestral tongue.

It is difficult to hold a conversation with the talkative Mr Ferri without reference to some Latin, Italian or French expression, or to some piece of literature dear to his scholastic heart. Expressing feelings and emotions comes naturally to him. He has been teaching for more than 30 years and his concerns are still for the well-being of classroom staff. According to one colleague, "he reflects the gut reactions of the members and he knows what they are feeling. He is upfront, straightforward and what you see is what you get. "

His energy, time and commitment to the union have brought him the accolade of "Mr Duracell". But compromise and political manoeuvring are said to elude his forthright approach. Nevertheless, his high profile and open style have ensured re-election as Scottish representative on the UK executive for the past five years. The union's 3,500 members (not 1,800, as we reported the other week) appear happy with the service. Mr Ferri himself points out: "If I was not delivering the goods, I would be shown the door."

He is currently stirring the political pot by campaigning hard on classroom indiscipline and draws some satisfaction that the "separated brethren" (the Educational Institute of Scotland and the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association) have taken up the cudgel. The NASUWT believes it was there first.

Mr Ferri is as candid on indiscipline as he is on most subjects. The small minority of violent and disruptive pupils should be taught in special units outwith their school, he argues. Such strategies run counter to current practice and to the views of the other unions. "If we were the same as the EIS we would be totally eclipsed. We do have something to say and if we are seen as the teachers' champions, so be it," he stated. The Ferri doctrine indeed has little in common with tight-lipped monkeys.

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