Thorn in the flesh comes of age

7th June 1996 at 01:00
May Ferries this weekend completes a journey known to several of her union colleagues in Glasgow: from left-wing radical and Rank and File member during the disputes of the 1970s and early 1980s to respectability and senior rank in the Educational Institute of Scotland in the 1990s.

The new union president is candid. "I have left sympathies but those who see themselves on the left in the EIS would see me as an establishment hack, " she confides. Why the change? Experience and age perhaps - she is now 43 - but most of all, she believes, because the political situation has changed.

"I worry about the new generation of teachers because they are Thatcher's children. In order to get a job, they have had to work incredibly hard at college in the hope of getting a top grade pass.

"And then they have got to satisfy every single headteacher they have had a temporary contract with and then go through a competitive interview to get a permanent post. By then they are so glad to have a contract that to have trade union perspective is asking a lot," she maintains.

Local bargaining may also have influenced her swing to the mainstream, according to colleagues. For more than 10 years she negotiated with Strathclyde officials over school closures, appraisal, workload and absence cover and was forced to cut deals to save jobs.

Ms Ferries has gained a reputation for sticking to her views even when others, including the union leadership, have gone off elsewhere. As a colleague points out: "She bucked the line on 5-14."

This is just one of the targets she refuses to drop. In an article for The TES Scotland earlier this year she forcefully argued that the programme was devised by interests far removed from the classroom, had overloaded the curriculum and overburdened teachers. Child-centred teaching was being stifled.

The union proclaimed a victory on national testing within the 5-14 programme but Ms Ferries remains suspicious. She was a late convert to the union line and for long enough backed a boycott.

Such differences have not pushed her further from the mainstream leadership. Quite the opposite. She is seen as a stout defender of causes that include primary education and women's contribution to the union. These two issues and that of "dragon heidies" combined to introduce her to the institute shortly after she began teaching in 1975.

"I was not involved in party politics but I was born and bred in Clydebank in a working-class family," she recalls. A run-in with her headteacher over the union's campaign on maximum class sizes changed her perceptions.

The union also provided lively company and fun for someone described by colleagues as "friendly, gregarious, with a typical west of Scotland humour". She quickly become school rep. and moved on through various Rank and File groups to chair the Glasgow branch in the mid-1980s dispute and on to the national council.

Her first speech at the council was on composite classes. The late John Pollock, the dominating general secretary, would have taken a circumspect view of the young Ms Ferries. "I was probably a thorn in his side," she agrees.

Union activism did not prevent her rise up the career structure. That in itself was a departure. "Promotion was an issue among union activists and people in Glasgow thought going for promotion was betrayal." But the appeal of professional advancement and the ambition to attain influence at school level took her to depute head level at Victoria primary in the city, only her second posting.

"I have the luxury of being involved in the curriculum and staff development and still work with kids. I do co-operative teaching," she says. Ms Ferries has twice been acting head but the experience was not rewarding. "I ran the school for a year and after six months I withdrew my application for the job. I was socially isolated from the staff. Becoming a headteacher is not the way I want to spend the next 20 years," she confesses.

Defending and promoting primary education is still close to her heart and she backs the campaign launched by the rival Association of Head Teachers in Scotland for primary heads to be paid the same as secondary heads if they run similar sized schools. She argues that "academic snobbery" and prejudice against women have created "appalling differentials" related to the view that "young children are women's work".

She contends: "Primary teachers tend to be abused more than secondary teachers and that is to do with the size of the units and the proportion of women. A lot also depends on women allowing themselves to be bullied by women headteachers. "

Gripes remain about the role of senior teachers in primaries, staffing standards and non-class contact time.

In contrast, as part of the union's equality campaign she supports the drive to encourage more men to become primary teachers since many families have no male figure to relate to.

As a long-standing member of the union's salaries committee and now as president she is well placed to continue her personal campaigns. One of the benefits of the top post is the ability to travel the country, visiting other schools. Recently she toured a rural primary for the first time and admits to having nicked a few teaching ideas.

Twenty years ago she would have taken a disdainful view of anyone who aspired to the presidency. Now she hopes to encourage more activism among primary teachers. Once she would have frowned on interests such as opera and gardening. Both are now passions. Perhaps it is something about the ageing process or perhaps it is just a matter of being receptive to wider perspectives.

That is a journey she has also made in union politics.

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