New president wants EIS to be 'moveable feast'

11th June 2010 at 01:00
Breaking down barriers to union involvement and raising the profile of CPD are top of Kay Barnett's list

Kay Barnett loves Paris. A Notre Dame motif is on her bag; inside sit a tiny Eiffel Tower attached to her keys and a bottle of her favourite perfume, Yves Saint Laurent's "Paris". She has had an unshakeable devotion to the French capital since being sent to stay with a couple on the Left Bank in that iconic year, 1968.

There is a passion of equal intensity in her working life. As one colleague put it, she is "more steeped in professional development than any other EIS president". In her own words: "I'm totally committed to the traditional role of the EIS as a trade union looking after members' conditions of service, but I'm also committed to doing everything possible to enhance teacher professionalism."

Mrs Barnett, 52, had a "political upbringing" in a South Lanarkshire mining family where issues were constantly discussed in the home, located, aptly, on Schoolhouse Avenue. She was "extremely happy" at school and retains acute memories of influential teachers at St David's High in Dalkeith, which she attended after a family move to Midlothian. She learned to sing and play the piano, and revelled in the open-minded approach of principal music teacher Jennifer Rimer, now head of St Mary's Music School in Edinburgh. A pupil's non-musical, working-class background was irrelevant, and attendance at "thrilling" classical concerts in Edinburgh's Usher Hall was an integral part of education.

To this day, Mrs Barnett is a devotee of live music, with eclectic and up- to-date tastes: her favourite concerts were Bruce Springsteen at Wembley during the 1985 "Born in the USA" tour and Deacon Blue in their 1980s heyday; she adores composer Gabriel Faure but her mobile ringtone is Lady Gaga's `Poker Face'.

History teacher Charlie Martin inspired by encouraging pupils to discuss topical issues at lunchtime, when he ingrained the idea that opinions must be backed up by evidence. But also seared into her brain is a bus ride in 1972, at the age of 14. She was talking to a friend about the Israeli athletes taken hostage at the ongoing Munich Olympics, when she felt a finger jab in her back. "Keep quiet," a woman passenger scolded. "You're just a wee girl - you don't know what you're talking about." Mrs Barnett, who has "been conscious from a young age of the need to promote the role of women", became aware that not everyone enjoyed the freedom of expression she had.

She was the first in her family to go to university, at Aberdeen's Northern College. She planned to train as a music teacher, but soon switched to history and English. Secondary teaching appealed: "I preferred the type of interaction you got with older pupils." In her first post she found herself in a type of school that was fast disappearing, the junior secondary.

In her early 20s, she was the sole teacher of English and history in Rosehearty School, more than an hour's drive north of Aberdeen. But visits from Grampian Regional Council's history adviser, Robbie Sim, had a "fundamental impact on my self-esteem and professional morale - he was so encouraging".

Friends across Scotland had "very different experiences" and she was struck early on by the importance of support for new teachers. She decided not to aim for management - Mrs Barnett has taught history at Fraserburgh Academy since 1983 - instead becoming an advocate of professional development. She has chaired the EIS's CPD sub-committee, and the General Teaching Council for Scotland's probations and professional standards committees.

Her presidency means that in recent years, three married couples will have filled the post: husband Jack was 2005-06 president; Kirsty and Tom Devaney and Willie Hart and Alana Ross have been incumbents.

Colleagues say Mrs Barnett can work with different types of people, with her avid and eclectic interests outside work acting as ice-breakers. She supports Hamilton Academical and Arsenal football clubs - "Gunners" is part of her personal email address - and she is a huge darts fan. She was rapt on May 24 as Phil "The Power" Taylor made history by hitting two nine-dart finishes in the same match.

Allied to consensus-building is tenacity and persistence. Colleagues say her pleasant manner gives way to something forcible when necessary. There is a feisty unwillingness to accept the inevitability of budget cuts and an assurance that she faces challenges "head on". She says: "Our members don't expect us to accept that education has to take a hit."

She thinks deeply about her new role. There is a reflective pause of 30 seconds when asked what she would like to have achieved in a year's time.

Aside from protecting jobs, she wants to "break down the barriers" to participating in the EIS. She frequently makes the four-hour drive from Fraserburgh to the union's Edinburgh base, and wants to show members that geography should be no impediment to more involvement.

Mrs Barnett's favourite author, Ernest Hemingway, described Paris as "a moveable feast". She wants the same to be true of the EIS.


- 1963-68: Coalburn Primary, South Lanarkshire

- 1968-70: St Luke's Primary, Mayfield, Midlothian

- 1970-76: St David's High, Dalkeith

- 1976-80: Aberdeen UniversityNorthern College, Bachelor of Education

- 1980-83: English and history teacher, Rosehearty School

- 1983-present: History teacher, Fraserburgh Academy

- 1992-95: Probationer support officer (secondment)

- 1999-2009: GTCS teacher member, including convenerships of probation and professional standards committees

- Member of board of governors of Northern College, before merger with Aberdeen University

- EIS roles: convener of CPD sub-committee, vice-president, member of council, executive committee and education committee

- EIS representative on: review group investigating 2000 exams crisis; Scottish Trades Union Congress; STUC's women's committee.

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