Workload is my first priority, says new SSTA chief

16th January 2015 at 00:00
Seamus Searson unveils his manifesto as he takes on top job

Easing teachers' workloads and improving the lot of supply teachers are the top priorities for the new general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association (SSTA).

Speaking to TESS after the appointment was announced last week, Seamus Searson (pictured, right) also said that he had been prompted to take up the role because of disenchantment with what was happening to education in England. He currently works south of the border as the NUT teaching union's regional officer for the North West.

But although he broadly welcomed the direction of travel in Scottish education, not least the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence, Mr Searson said his priority was to alleviate the workload pressures on his members, as well as to get to grips with teachers' pay and pensions. "It's workload that wears people down," he added.

The former design and technology teacher, who takes up his role at the SSTA next month, is also keen to address concerns about supply teachers, who he says have been "treated poorly".

In recent years, supply teachers were hit by changes that required them to work for five days at a lower rate before they received full pay. This was later reduced to two days, but a TESS survey in October also found that most local authorities were struggling to recruit supply staff ("Schools running for cover in supply crisis", 24 October).

"They're a very important part of the system - the schools can't run without qualified supply teachers," Mr Searson said.

Having helped Northern Irish teachers through "a sea change from just a knowledge-based curriculum" in a previous role for the NASUWT union, Mr Searson said he felt confident about dealing with similar reforms in Scotland, which intend to move education away from an exam-dominated syllabus towards embracing a broader range of skills and subjects under CfE.

But although he praised the "excellent idea" behind the CfE overhaul, Mr Searson said there were signs of government officials "trying to do it in a rush - which is always a big mistake".

Mr Searson told TESS he was wary of recent pronouncements from Scottish education directors to the effect that councils could not carry on doing everything they had done in the past, given the extreme financial pressures.

He also called on Scotland's ministers to learn lessons from the academies programme in England. These reforms, he said, offered a cautionary tale of what could happen when links with local authorities were eroded.

"I always thought that was a wrong move because schools can do what they want, and sometimes it's not in the best interests of youngsters," he added.

Offloading extra responsibilities on to headteachers would take their attention away from more important matters, Mr Searson warned.

"The idea of delegating to schools to run their own show is not necessarily a good step," he said. "I always regard a headteacher as someone who should be supporting and working with teachers in the classroom, not just doing a management function - that's what people in local authorities are paid for."

Mr Searson is the SSTA's first permanent general secretary since lawyer Sheila Mechan was dismissed after three weeks in the job last April. Previous incumbent Ann Ballinger left in December 2012, and both Alan McKenzie and Fiona Dalziel have performed as acting general secretary.

Before becoming a union official, Mr Searson spent 25 years working in the classroom, with most of his experience gained in the deprived London borough of Tower Hamlets. This, he said, had given him a keen awareness of the "stranglehold" that deprivation had on students' chances of doing well at school.

"The mistake that's often made is that somebody from outside determines what they think is the right solution [to attainment gaps] without actually asking the people on the ground what's going on," he added.

Life and times

1973-78 Attends St Philip Howard School and Shoreditch College in London

1978-87 Teaches design and technology in London

1985-88 Earns a diploma of education and an MA at the Institute of Education, London

1987-2003 Works in Langdon Park School in the East London borough of Tower Hamlets as head of the technology faculty

2003 Elected London regional official of the NASUWT teaching union

2005-13 Becomes the NASUWT's Northern Ireland officer

2014 Education associate for the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools in Northern Ireland

2014-15 Moves to the NUT teaching union as regional officer for the North West of England

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