Through the pillars of power

25th October 1996 at 01:00
Jim O'Neill looks back withpride and pain after 15 years atthe heart of the teacher unions.

Four score years ago and ten - no it's not, it only feels like it. More than 15 years ago, I escaped from the classroom to become the youngest, and one of the first, field officers in the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. At the age of 29, I was full of enthusiasm and revolutionary fervour, having already been involved in the WOSTAG action group at the time of Houghton and in the Clegg dispute during the "winter of discontent".

At 44, and having to leave the post as a result of injuries caused through my other addiction, politics, I remain somewhat enthusiastic, and still with a little of the fervour untarnished. For the 15 years or so that I have fronted my trade union in Scotland has been traumatic in shaping the face of education and the trade union aspirations of teachers as no other period has been this century.

I am often now asked, as I take my leave of the teacher union scene, what the highlights have been. There have been few, but the tribulations many. During that time we have fought a major industrial dispute, seen our trade union rights steadily eroded by the Government (ably assisted by too many education authorities), introduced Standard grade, entered the 5-14 swamp and are now seeking to cope with a half-thought-out approach to the senior school.

At the same time the purchasing power and the value of teachers' salaries has been eroded, despite steadily increasing productivity, as measured by output, and the conditions in which teachers work has steadily deteriorated with less and less capital being made available by the Government for school buildings.

Finally, and most starkly, has been the tragedy of Dunblane. Trying to make some sense of such a senseless act for the media and the press in the immediate aftermath put all the other issues in context. If our children are not safe in their schools, where can they be safe? If parents cannot be sure that they will see their child again after they hand them over to our care, then what kind of monster society have we allowed ourselves to create in the last years of the 20th century? The safety and security of the children must come first, last and always.

That said, the quality of the teaching experience is central to the delivery of a quality education system. An unhappy teacher will often tend to provide education at less than optimum level, and the past 15 years have created too many unhappy teachers. They have seen their standing in society diminish over the years. They have seen their work and commitment undervalued, and they have faced attack after attack both from the Government and other spokespersons which has undermined their self confidence and personal esteem.

I have counselled too many teachers over that period suffering from severe cases of stress, and I have assisted too many good, committed teachers to leave a profession that has severely damaged their health. These are not people looking for an easy option. They are people who have committed their lives to teaching, but who can no longer face the vastly increasing demands of the classroom. Their loss is not just a loss to teaching, it is a loss to society.

But all the attempts to address this problem, much heralded by the NASUWT throughout the UK, have been little more than tinkering. And yet more and more is laden on to the groaning backs of teachers. It is essential that someone, somewhere takes a long hard look at the demands we are placing on our education system, and on those central pillars - the teachers in the classroom.

Yet it as not been all doom and gloom. I have met and worked with, and sometimes against, some great people. Foremost in this, and I will probably be denounced for apostasy by some members of my union, was John Pollock of the Educational Institute of Scotland. John bestrode the trade union movement and the educational world like a colossus, although sometimes, as a colossus, he stepped in the wrong place. But he had the great ability to recognise that what was done, in fulfilment of your job, need not impact on your private persona.

It is no surprise to me that the only time that I have been invited to the EIS conference as a fraternal delegate was during John's reign, and that he spent more time chatting to me about Ayrshire over drinks than he did denouncing the Scottish Schoolmasters' Association as general secretary. I only wish that he had seen the wisdom that my much younger eyes had seen, of the value of a UK union. Then again, he loved the EIS with a passion and could and would do nothing to minimise its influence. It certainly made my work in creating the Scottish wing of the foremost UK teachers' organisation all the harder.

Again, the quality of the ministers for education, and Secretaries of State has varied over the years. However, the great dispute remains foremost in my mind. With George Younger, apart from one famous incident in London related in former TESS reporter David Ross's book, An Unlikely Anger, there was always the soul of gentility. Mind you, if Ross had researched the book a little further instead of listening only to the EIS view, he might have told the story differently.

However, since the EIS commissioned and paid for the book, this was understandable. With Malcolm Rifkind, however, we faced a different class of negotiator. The teachers' demand was a pay review body. He stopped the dispute by giving us one, but one which he ultimately controlled. I am sure that this is at the core of the institute's resistance to a pay review body today, despite the fact that the English pay review body has consistently given English teachers a rise greater than that agreed at the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee.

But now, it is time for me to come clean. No longer bound by collective responsibility I can comment freely on their policies. I can exclusively reveal that I actually do believe that a pay review body is the way forward for Scottish teachers, that I actually do believe that a solely Scottish teachers' union is an anachronism, and that I do believe that action to protect teachers from attacks, from pupils, parents, and, yes, management, is wholly justified.

I remain convinced of the commitment of Scottish teachers to the cause of providing the best possible education for their charges, a commitment which I have witnessed time and again in the very many schools I have visited over the past 15 years. I have to thank those many teachers, and particularly members of the NASUWT, for the friendship and many kindnesses shown me during my time at the sharp end, and I do believe that, given the political will, and a measure of common sense in negotiating, teaching can once again be a central pillar of our society.

To quote Tony Blair, the main policies of a future Government, and of our society, must be "education, education, and education". Only then can the partnership between school and society produce a generation for the future.

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