Ronnie Smith

17th February 2012 at 00:00
On the eve of his retirement, the general secretary of the EIS teaching union discusses the way ahead for the profession in a rising tide of accountability, as well as the downsides of the McCormac report, the supply teachers' pay cuts and the challenges awaiting his successor. Photography by Alan Richardson

What threats are Scottish teachers facing in the future?

There is a threat to professional autonomy. There is a more invasive climate of control and accountability through things like re-accreditation and the continuing view, almost campaign, that there are lots of bad teachers who need to be weeded out. We need to be very careful how professional review and personal development is developed - whether it is positive and supportive or whether it is effectively, policing the profession.

And in the medium and long-term?

There is a view creeping in that anybody can teach - the Renfrewshire Council attempt to bring in non-teachers, for example - and that you can do much more using ICT where the teacher is not really necessary. It's downgrading the interaction between teacher and pupil and it could threaten both the number of teachers employed and who teaches.

What are your biggest fears relating to implementation of the McCormac report?

I hope it is not implemented. I think the biggest challenge teachers face is managing workload, and there is not much in McCormac that would give teachers any sense of assurance that they would be better placed to manage their workloads.

Looking back more than a decade, were there things that should have been done differently in the McCrone negotiations?

No. I am a very consistent and persistent defender of the agreement and the process that got us there. As we have moved further away from it, we have moved in a negative direction. The underpinning principle of collegiate working is becoming progressively weaker and that's contributing to a decline in the general atmosphere and industrial relations in schools.

What about last year's deal? Was the cut in supply teachers' pay a step too far?

I don't think anybody wanted that change to come in, at least on the teachers' side. But we had to negotiate a pay bill reduction and failure to do that meant that the trade-off would have been job losses. We took a decision that maintaining jobs and employment opportunities, particularly for new teachers, should be given priority. If it is genuinely the case that the consequence of this agreement is that there are serious shortages of supply teachers, then it will be need to be revisited - but nobody should be under any illusions - if that were to be undone, then money would have to be found somewhere else.

Your successor, Larry Flanagan, was not a member of the negotiating team in last year's agreement - is his appointment a protest vote against the settlement?

No, I am genuinely confident that in the process we went through in interviewing candidates, the EIS national council was looking at much more than any of the candidates' position on any single policy issue.

Of all the education ministers you've worked with, who was most impressive?

Peter Peacock. I thought his grasp of his brief, his genuine interest in the area of work for which he was responsible, his approachability and the ease with which he engaged with folk at every level were impressive. I didn't always agree with him, but I thought he made a pretty good job of getting the profession on board for a lot of what he was doing. We had an early disagreement when he was a junior education minister over some of the changes to the General Teaching Council that he oversaw - the scandal of creating various "rotten boroughs" or protected positions for headteachers and nursery teachers. I didn't think that was to his credit.

Can anything be done to save further education from the cuts facing it?

We have to try. I find it a very strange focus for government cuts. You would think that with rising unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, you would want to ensure it is not a lost generation - that our young people are in education or training rather than on the dole.

Over the years, has any issue in particular kept you awake at night?

Every issue, all the time - but not any specific issue. When I started in the job, I hoped that the EIS would be in as good shape when I left it - so holding on to membership is essential.

You've been very involved in international education as president of the European Trade Union Committee for Education. What perspectives have you gained from that?

Two things: you get a good sense of perspective in relation to what's happening here when you compare the challenges being confronted by members in other countries - for example in Ireland, Greece and Portugal. It helps set things in perspective. But the other thing is, it's been educational to get an understanding of other aspects of systems that we would do well to pay more attention to - for example, Finland, of which everyone is in awe.

How would you describe your own leadership style?

Consensual and collegiate.

How will your successor, Larry Flanagan, differ from that?

I plead the fifth amendment. He will find his own way and that's only correct.

What plans do you have for retirement?

I intend to spend more time in Shetland, but I will complete my European term in the European Trade Union Committee for Education.


Born: Lerwick, Shetland, 1951

Education: Lerwick Central Primary; Anderson Educational Institute; the University of Aberdeen, MA (Ord), 1972; Aberdeen College of Education, PGCE in Latin, modern studies and history

Career: Broxburn Academy, 1973-88; EIS assistant secretary, 1988-95; EIS general secretary 1995-2012.

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