What a way to choose a general secretary

8th November 1996 at 00:00
I have always known that the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association is unique in its ability to protect Scottish secondary teachers but to discover that we are the only Scottish teachers' union which has to elect its general secretary because of this Government's anti-union legislation, only adds to its singularity.

The Educational Institute of Scotland, of course, is protected from this necessity by the black, bombazine skirts of that well known lover of Scotsmen, Queen Victoria, and her charter; the Professional Association of Teachers and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers are only provincial outposts. The legislation is, therefore, not even capable of having the Government's desired effect of preventing an "Arthur Scargill" emerging So, if I want the job of general secretary, I have to submit myself for election by the SSTA membership through a ballot paper, with a 300-word statement, sent to home addresses. Now, I have nothing against democracy; it is a wonderful thing when you get elected, as I was as president of the union, but it does make you aware of the inadequacies of the system. After all, American presidents are elected. Enough said?

Because you are an active member of your union, becoming involved at local then national level, at first you think you are well known and it comes as something of a shock to discover that a fairly small percentage of the membership is actually aware of your existence. And there is the rub.

The General Teaching Council agonises every four years about how to persuade more than 30 per cent of those on the register to cast their votes. It is clear many say: "I don't know any of them; I don't know if they deserve my vote. " Many are simply apathetic. These teachers are usually members of unions as well.

By what means, in the main, do people decide how to vote in elections of this kind? If you are to believe some of those who claim to be in the know, sticking pins in the ballot paper would rate as a considered judgment. Apparently, where your name comes in the alphabet, your gender, where you work, your perceived religious persuasion (if any) may count. If a photograph is included, then the permutations increase considerably. Certainly those of us who are not photogenic (or perhaps just think we look better than we actually do) are at a considerable disadvantage. Do the names Diana and Camilla help to illustrate this point?

Having applied for many jobs in teaching, I am also aware of the inadequacies of the application and interview system of choosing an employee. I have participated in interview panels, seeing the situation from the other side. I am aware how difficult it is to chose with no previous experience of a candidate and only the application form, references and performance at interview to go on.

How many of us have been heard to utter the immortal words: "How did they get the job?" I am reminded of a speaker at a management training course who reminded us that "behind every great man, there is a woman". What the speaker found more apt was to change the second phrase to "there is a woman who is quite frankly amazed".

Add to this - and not to be sexist about it - the suspicion many teachers have now, that local authorities are trying to redress the imbalance in male-female promotion at senior management level, "discriminating" against many equally well qualified men.

Many organisations have tried to look for more meaningful ways of "interviewing" prospective employees. However, I don't think my performance at a cocktail party, balancing plate and glass or earning myself extra points by whipping from my handbag one of those daft gadgets beloved of Ideal Homes exhibitions, which attaches to plates to hold your glass so you can glad-hand the others in the company, would hold much sway with the canny office-bearers of the SSTA.

The present legislation also does not prevent the "maverick" candidate with a spin doctor composing the election address ending up attempting to run the union for five years before there is a need to be re-elected. Rather, I would prefer a group of my peers who have seen me "in action", know of my experience and performance. They are surely far better placed to decide whether I, or one of the other candidates, is best suited to the job of general secretary.

Marie Allan, an English teacher in Edinburgh, is a candidate for general secretary of the SSTA.

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