The huge scale of global tax avoidance uncovered in the Panama Papers has directly damaged Scottish schools, a leading union official has said.
Addressing the EIS teaching union’s annual general meeting in Dundee yesterday (9 June), its president Pat Flanagan railed against such tax avoidance and other global trends, including austerity and privatisation. He said that they had chipped away at Scottish teachers’ pay and the idea of schools as a public service for “societal good”.
Mr Flanagan said that austerity-driven cuts had “created even greater barriers to educational achievement for too many of our young people”. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) had also warned last month that austerity “can do more harm than good”, he said.
“One better way is to have a fair tax system at global and national level,” he said. “The most surprising thing about the Panama Papers was that anyone was surprised.”
A wealth of threats
He pointed to The Hidden Wealth of Nations, in which Professor Gabriel Zucman calculated that around 8 per cent of the world’s wealth in 2014 – £5.2 trillion – was “missing”.
Education International, which represents 400 teaching unions and associations around the world, has backed calls by the Global Alliance for Tax Justice for more accountability for companies and greater investment in public services, Mr Flanagan added.
“Non-compliance with such basic principles by wealthy individuals and corporations has a direct impact on public service and on public education systems,” he said.
Mr Flanagan also warned of the threat from another worldwide trend, dubbed the Global Education Reform Movement – or Germ.
Germ prioritises testing and privatisation, he said, and where it “infects an education system it creates, exacerbates and entrenches inequalities”. England has provided a salutary tale, with its “academisation” of schools, abolition of national pay scales and high-stakes testing, he said.
“Given such trends, we should celebrate the shared commitment of Scottish society that education is a societal good and is, and should remain, a public service under democratic control,” said Mr Flanagan (pictured below).
Concerns remained, however, about the Scottish government’s introduction of standardised national assessments in 2016-17. “Are they to be a tool available to teachers for diagnostic assessment, or are they part of the accountability agenda?” he said.
There were other serious problems dogging Scottish education, not least a real-terms cut to education spending in the past five years, he added. Local government had put this at £300 million, despite there being 20,000 more primary pupils, he said.
While the Scottish government’s investment of £750 million in its Attainment Fund over five years was “welcome”, Mr Flanagan described this money as like “topping up a bucket that is heavily leaking”.
But the most common problem he had encountered while visiting schools was the teacher shortage, which upped workloads for all staff and often forced headteachers and other promoted colleagues to cover classes in their management time.
Mr Flanagan also blamed the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) for loading more work on to teachers. The SQA had shown “little urgency to address our concerns” over new qualifications, and he urged members to vote in favour of industrial action before an EIS ballot on workload closes this Thursday.
In his former role as finance secretary, John Swinney – now education secretary – spoke out strongly against tax avoidance. He predicted that Revenue Scotland – established in 2015 to give Scotland its first nationwide tax-collection system in 300 years – would “take robust counteraction against artificial tax-avoidance schemes” and “not just the most abusive end of the spectrum”.
A grilling for the education secretary
John Swinney (pictured, left) will become the second education secretary to address the EIS’s annual gathering, weeks after taking up the job.
General secretary Larry Flanagan said that Mr Swinney’s appearance would prompt “interesting questioning from teachers and lecturers and spark wider political debate on the government’s plans for enhancing support for our schools, colleges and universities”.
Mr Swinney said that, since being appointed last month, he had heard many teachers’ concerns and “taken steps to address issues around workload, to help streamline unit assessments in national qualifications and to ensure teachers have clarity around what is expected of them”.
In 2013, former education secretary Michael Russell became the first politician to address the full EIS AGM.
The EIS teaching union is made up of 55,000 members from across nursery, primary, secondary, further and higher education – making it the largest teaching union in Scotland.
Eighty per cent of Scotland’s teachers and lecturers are members.
The 170th annual general meeting takes place in Dundee this week (9-11 June). The EIS is the oldest teacher trade union in the world.
A total of 62 motions will be discussed this year: 24 on education, 14 on salaries, 14 on organisation, seven on equality, two on employment relations and one emergency motion (PPP/PPI schools).
This year, 350 delegates are due to attend.
Four fringe events are planned, including a chance to quiz general secretary Larry Flanagan (pictured) and a session on supporting transgender learners.