Ready for the union hot seat

25th July 1997 at 01:00
Neil Munro meets Jane Reid, the primary teacher who will lead the anti-strike PAT

Jane Reid is preparing herself for a momentous week. On Tuesday the teacher from Ladeside primary in Larbert will be installed as chairman of the Professional Association of Teachers (no nonsense about chairpersons in the PAT), at the start of its national conference in Glasgow.

The chalkface is rarely represented so directly in a hot seat. But, as a 38- year-old "ordinary" classroom teacher catapulted into English as well as Scottish teacher politics, the adjective is scarcely appropriate in Miss Reid's case.

Nor does she intend to let people forget where she is coming from. "I consider my main strength to be the fact that I am a classroom teacher," she said last year after she was elected national vice-chairman. "I have taught for 14 years, without a break, boys and girls of all primary ages," she added, to reinforce the point that she is in daily contact with the real world.

Miss Reid is surely not so ordinary either in emerging as a PAT member from Central Region (as was), the very heartland of the Educational Institute of Scotland. She is Dundonian by birth, although her early childhood was spent in Sutherland, where she was taught for a time by her father, the local minister, who was alleviating a teacher shortage.

So why PAT, which Miss Reid joined in 1985? She says she initially signed up with the EIS because all the teachers in her school were members. But the strikes of the mid-Eighties revived memories of the effects of a previous walk-out by teachers in the seventies when she was a fourth-year pupil at Falkirk High.

"So I really came to a decision on opposing strike action when I was 16, " Miss Reid says. Ironically, periods of unrest are always the best recruiting times for the anti-strike PAT.

Miss Reid is a classics graduate who went on, unusually, to teach primary children. "I always wanted to be a teacher," she says, "but it was obvious that opportunities in the secondary sector for someone with Latin and Greek were beginning to close down."

After graduating from Edinburgh University, she began to trawl through teacher-training courses in England. Her search eventually landed her a place at a Staffordshire college.

Miss Reid's first exposure to schools in 1982, however, was not to the douce world of the primary classroom but to a rather different slice of life as a teacher of delinquent teenage girls in Snowdon List D school in Stirling. "That probably made me a different kind of teacher," she says. "It gave me an understanding of pupils who come from difficult backgrounds."

Since then she has worked steadily up the association's ranks, becoming actively involved with Scotland in 1989. She joined the PAT national council four years later, representing Tayside, Central and Fife. She clearly has no regrets about joining the union, even though, with a total membership of 40,000, it is smaller in Britain than the EIS is in Scotland.

The new chairman - the third Scot to hold the post nationally but the first in 11 years - insists that, while the association may not be muscular, it has more influence than people believe. But that influence is confined to England, Miss Reid concedes, the pervasiveness of the EIS making it more difficult for smaller unions to achieve a breakthrough in Scotland.

She has been catching up on events in England, spending the first two weeks of her summer holidays on a tour of schools in Derbyshire and her old stamping ground in Staffordshire. The main message she has taken away with her is that teacher morale is even worse south of the border.

"Lack of time and resources, of course, are issues in England as well, " she says. "But low morale is only partly to do with these things. Teachers have had to put up with a very negative climate, even indifference, in which they are suddenly confronted with criticism when they have never been told that what they were doing was wrong."

The union may not be the strikers' friend but it nor will it side with teacher-bashers. "Teachers who are struggling to do their job should be helped to improve," Miss Reid says. "The way forward should be to provide support and ensure that the best possible people come in to theprofession in the first place.

"The General Teaching Council, for which PAT has long campaigned in England and Wales, has been able to exercise quality control on entrants to teaching in Scotland and I hope the council, which the Government plans to set up south of the border, will be able to do the same there."

The association certainly gets value for money from its leaders: the chairman is also a union field officer in the Falkirk area, dealing with the usual range of professional problems.

But the vicissitudes of the profession do not stop when you become a national figure. Last year Miss Reid was subject to a compulsory transfer.

"This experience taught me that the most important quality needed for a successful change in working circumstances is a positive attitude," she said. A splendid motto for her year ahead.

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