The surreal saga of the Kirkland Five

14th November 2003 at 00:00
John Aberdein recalls the 25-year-old cause celebre that established the principle of no arbitrary compulsory transfers

he 1970s was a decade marked by bitter political witch-hunts. Not quite on the scale of Pentonville's imprisoned dockers, Scottish education's own modest cluster of accuses met up for its 25th anniversary in Edinburgh earlier this month: the Kirkland Five. Over the Thai fish stew, it gradually become clearer what that strange saga might have been about.

Smeared rather than tried, five young founder-members of Fife Rank and File, a campaigning group within the Educational Institute of Scotland, were threatened with compulsory transfer from Kirkland High in Methil. In the words of the then director of education, he was "not questioning their competence in the classroom" but "their attitude and influence in the school". They would therefore be split up and sent to the five corners of the Kingdom of Fife. It was an astonishing threat, one that was to be fiercely resisted within the school and across Scotland.

It was not as though Kirkland High was short of genuine problems. A school like a flattened translucent shoebox wedged on a noisy crossroads, with a single red ash pitch and a games hall, it was the poor relation of the traditional senior secondary, Buckhaven High, set in its greensward along the way. The particular five in question brought a leaven that included the development of media studies, modern studies, the school newspaper and community use; trips to Hampden, the Lyceum and the Traverse; kayak-building and kayak-camping trips to Skye, Assynt, the Treshnish and Corryvreckan.

Facing inflation-eroded pay, the five largely comprised the strike committee, which succeeded in closing Kirkland for a total of 17 days in 1974-75 in pursuit of the EIS's pound;15 per week flat rate claim. The key Rank and File innovation was rota strikes, whereby 80 staff, including rector and deputes, chipped in pound;5 each per week to the strike fund.

But only the 20 busiest class teachers were withdrawn, thus closing the school and enabling strike pay to be paid.

While this tactic undoubtedly irritated the Fife directorate, things only began to go wrong in late 1975 when an opportunist SNP politician mischievously compared Kirkland's O grade results with those from Madras College in well-heeled St Andrews.

The public furore in the Sunday Mail put the squeeze on, and the rector, Dai Davies, a man of immense commitment to eradicating the effects of poverty, was caught in the middle. He chose to fight a largely defensive battle. Yet, if the average pupil-teacher ratio across Fife had been applied to Kirkland, the school would have received 10 extra teachers. In fact, the directorate was tardy even in advertising vacancies as they arose.

When a Rank and File member insisted at a 1977 school EIS meeting that a vacant maths job be advertised, a sad, explosive row broke out with the rector who accused trade unionists of trying to usurp management powers. A week later I was informed by Fife that I would be transferred from the school. A fortnight later, Dai Davies tragically died.

Sensing its opportunity, the directorate seconded a disciplinarian, the late John Strang, as interim rector. With one brief exception there were no "open" staff meetings for eight months. Bill Brown, the EIS rep, was given a warning for not reporting the content of a "closed" staff meeting to the rector.

Eddie Dick was given a warning for having "books of an overt political nature" in his class library. Indeed: Young Winston nestled next to Paul Foot's Why You Should be a Socialist and The Thoughts of Chairman Mao rubbed shoulders with The Speeches of John F. Kennedy. Strangely, only two of these were counted in the charge. Eventually Ron Tweedie and Stuart Haddon were implicated to make up the Kirkland Five.

EIS national leaders visited the school and were surprised to see the "unanimity of members" in support of the five teachers. In addition, there was no possibility of the EIS doing a behind-doors deal with Fife once reporter David Ross began a series of detailed reports in The TES Scotland.

Well-attended rallies were held in Kirkcaldy and Scotland's four major cities. Even right-wing teachers were not prepared to see arbitrary compulsory transfer used to circumvent evidence-based disciplinary procedure.

The Kirkland Five won. They established the principle that no teacher could be transferred against their wishes in Scotland, except for reasons of staffing economy. There was a taste of wet ash about it, too. Within a matter of months, four of the five had gone: into FE, outdoor education, the Scottish Film Council and to play a key role in another disadvantaged school.

It wasn't the Sorbonne. But the attempt by Fife to impose a German Berufsverbot (occupational ban) on left-wing teachers was successfully resisted.

John Aberdein teaches in Stromness Academy, Orkney.

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