Two is not better than one

5th June 2009 at 01:00

It never fails to amaze me, even in these touchy-feely times, just how touchy people in education are to questions being asked out loud - including parent leader Judith Gillespie in her response to my last column on parent representation.

The question of representation in education becomes more incendiary when one considers the role of teachers' unions. Bernard Ponsonby, the STV political editor, always amused me by asking self-regarding Conservative leaders: "What is the Tory Party for?" It would wrong-foot Duncan-Smith, McLetchie and Goldie at the start of an interview and leave them nervous throughout. Mission accomplished for Bernard.

In regard to education, one can and should ask: what is a teachers' union for? It might seem an easy question with obvious answers, but I'm not sure.

It is not as if Scotland's teachers' unions are in the vanguard of the revolution. There are no membership fees to the Labour Party, new or old, and if there is sponsorship of any individual MPs or MSPs, I can't say the unions make much of a song and dance about it. Maybe it would be too embarrassing to associate with politicians these days?

There was a big squabble in the 1970s when the unions eventually decided to join the then powerful and very political STUC - but does anyone care now? Of course, there were teachers' strikes in the 1970s and 1980s, but those were in the days when students were revolting; I know, I was one. It was a seamless move for bearded Trots occupying Moray House College (as was) to become bearded modern studies teachers calling the brothers and sisters out of the staffroom.

And what did it achieve but the ruination of the community ethos in many of our schools and the devastation of extra-curricular activities that has probably cost Scotland the World Cup for ever? And did pay really keep up? Education minister Alan Stewart may have become a nervous wreck, but then came John Mackay and, higher still, Michael Forsyth. Revenge is best served cold, Prime Minister Thatcher obviously thought.

And what's more, Forsyth got his way. He championed the cause of pupils and parents, and unions were in no position to argue. But that was then and this is, well, er, the time of a mother of all recessions when the worst is yet to come. So what can we expect from teachers' unions? Piling the desks up as barricades to save school closures, fighting for smaller classes and protecting salaries?

Hmmm. I read of threats to strike over the introduction of the new curriculum and I asked myself: "Is that in the real world?" Striking against the SNP Government that, for all its faults, still appears to have the sympathy of the public? Asking parents to look after Darren and Senga when they need to be at work earning every penny they can? It sounds like futile sabre-rattling to me, rather than a genuine prospect.

Politicians and bankers might be the curse of the land in Britain at the moment, but union leaders would be misleading their members if they genuinely thought teachers would be beyond criticism if they were to strike at this time.

Do we really need the SSTA and the EIS? In these straightened times, is it necessary to have two headquarters, two sets of jolly conferences, and two sets of administrators and officials? Others, such as accountants and surveyors, have a professional body, without whose approval you cannot practise. Why do teachers need a General Teaching Council AND a teachers' union - paying fees to both?

Teachers' unions do offer benefits: they are essentially co-operative insurance societies protecting against bullying by bosses or pupils, a sort of unfriendly friendly society. Is that not good enough?

Brian Monteith is a fully paid-up member of ASTMS (Awkward Squad and TroubleMakers Society).

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