From sit-ins to top chair

5th June 2009 at 01:00
`Mother Earth' figure takes up her new role as EIS president - but adversaries beware, Helen Connor is a no-nonsense woman

New EIS president Helen Connor has made two contrasting appearances in this newspaper. In 2007, we reported on her work as a Coatbridge High transitions teacher, cajoling and bantering with vulnerable pupils who struggle in the big school.

A year later, she appeared on the letters page on union business, issuing a blistering response to a North Lanarkshire councillor's version of disputed events: she could only "assume that he was deliberately trying to mislead your readers".

In class, she is bubbly and popular; one colleague described the 52-year- old as a "Mother Earth figure". She admits to having been in floods of tears the day before she spoke to The TESS, after the death of her canary, Cheeky.

But, as another acquaintance attests, Miss Connor can be "formidable": she will not suffer fools gladly or shy away from arguments. "I think I'm a particularly good negotiator," Miss Connor says. "I say what I believe."

She stresses, however, that she does not revel in stand-offs: "I don't like the union being `them and us'. I've always tried to work with management."

Miss Connor describes herself as "very principled", and still rents the Coatbridge council house her family has had for decades, believing it should not fall into property speculators' hands. She puts her convictions down to her father, an intelligent man who would have gone to university in other times but became a foreman at Sunblest Bakeries in Glasgow.

Her political principles were fanned during student sit-ins at Jordanhill College, from where she qualified as a primary teacher in 1977. She moved to London and became treasurer of the National Union of Students, working closely with future chair of the Commission for Racial Equality Trevor Phillips and future Times journalist David Aaronovitch. Having become disillusioned with the Labour Party - colleagues describe her as "moderate left" - she does not remember another contemporary, Business Secretary Lord Mandelson, with the same fondness, nor a six-month spell working for the party in the House of Commons.

She returned to Scotland in 1984 and has faced nothing as tough as working in an inner-city London school. Nevertheless, she believes children are now arriving at primary school with fewer social skills and more behavioural problems, which she sees largely as a legacy of Scottish manufacturing's demise. She has been heavily involved with the EIS since 1997, having been determined to speak for teachers whose lives were made a "misery" by "bullying" headteachers.

Colleagues and rivals agree she is ideal for the president's role in these financially straitened times. She knows and is well-liked by the membership, won't be wrong-footed or overawed by politicians, and takes difficult stands if necessary. "It's not about being popular," she says. "It's about having a belief."

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