At the top, but there's a mountain to climb

8th June 2001 at 01:00
John Cairney talks to Sandy Fowler, the incoming EIS president, as the union meets for its annual conference this weekend in Perth

WHEN the new Educational Institute of Scotland president is installed at this year's annual conference in Perth, he will take over as something of an endangered species. Sandy Fowler is the first holder of the post for 16 years to have been elected in a vote of the membership.

Every year since 1985 the sitting vice-president has automatically ascended in a kind of McBuggins's turn, but this year the leadership's favourite had to overcome a challenge prompted by disaffection over the post-McCrone package.

Apprehension among members during the negotiations and disquiet after the agreement was reached guaranteed a challenge. And so it proved, with the anti-McCrone faction putting up Myra Armstrong, Edinburgh teacher of English and veteran leftist campaigner, in a bid to stop Mr Fowler having a free run. There was nearly an election for vice-president as well.

As vice-president and a member of the salaries and conditions committee which negotiated the McCrone package and recommended it to the membership, Mr Fowler was closely associated with the campaign for hearts, minds and votes prior to the crucial ballot in February. His missionary trips round the country did him no harm at all, though as one Glasgow disaffectee retorted: "He didn't come here."

He rose to the leftist challenge and saw off Ms Armstrong by 10,779 votes to 6,919. So, unlike another president in a country far away of which we know quite a lot, he can say that he won the popular vote, and in so doing got his mandate.

Born in Muir of Ord, he attended school there, thence to Thurso High. Thirty years in the same Ayrshire school, Prestwick Academy, have not erased his Highland brogue. He started at Prestwick in 1971 as a history teacher before becoming principal teacher in 1984. A member of the Labour Party, he admits to being "not particularly active".

Some recent presidents might eschew being called establishment figures because of their radical pasts, but the tag seems to suit the new incumbent. Mr Fowler has never been identified with any of the anti-establishment campaigns that have characterised EIS politics during the past quarter century.

When the boat was being rocked by activists during the rough seas of Houghon, Clegg, and Main, he was firmly on board as a loyal member of the crew. This must have been something of a disappointment to his history lecturer at Aberdeen University, Glasgow teacher Ian McCalman, for many years a leading light in the left-wing pressure groups which gave the leadership such a hard time in the seventies and eighties before himself taking the presidential shilling in 1997.

Perhaps it was Mr Fowler's sense of history that motivated him to play such a prominent role in the campaign for a Scottish Assembly and then the Scottish Constitutional Convention, on which he represented the EIS.

According to Canon Kenyon Wright, the convention's chair, he "played an important role in developing the work of the convention, especially in relation to the role of the Scottish parliament in reshaping education". Excellent preparation for McCrone, some might say.

He knows his way around the EIS having come through the union's structures, from school representative, local association office bearer and membership of the executive council and a number of important committees, notably the now defunct parliamentary committee.

Considering the months of arduous negotiations that preceded the teachers' settlement, it is illuminating to hear him say that "the real work begins now". He welcomes "the very positive endorsement of the agreement" by the membership, but acknowledges that even among yes voters there still exists "considerable distrust".

He feels that most local authorities have been "responsive" during the post-McCrone discussions, but identifies "one or two pockets of difficulty". The real test, he says, will come at school level. "Consensual agreement is essential. Headteachers must avoid breaking away from the terms of the code of practice and the spirit of the agreement. If people see the school agreements working then the trust that was missing can be restored."

He has come a long way from Muir of Ord and is set to go even farther in July when he accompanies Ronnie Smith, the EIS general secretary, to a teachers' conference in Kathmandu, (rioters willing).The challenges when he returns could be compared to conquering Everest. While the quest for votes may have been successful, the battle for hearts and minds continues.

To extend the mountaineering analogy, the expedition is still at base camp.

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