Interview: EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan on the long road to strike action

Written by Gemma Fraser on 31 January 2019 in Inside Politics

The general secretary of Scotland’s largest teaching union tells Holyrood how they got to the stage where industrial action could be the only option left

When Larry Flanagan listens to his adult children, who are both in the dawn of their teaching careers, regale tales from the classroom over dinner, does he ever feel the need to scream at them to quit right now and save themselves a lifetime of stress, poor work-life balance and a salary that reflects neither?

After all, the word ‘teaching’ is very seldom used in Scotland at the moment without being followed by the word ‘crisis’.

The profession is on the brink of the first national strike since the dark days of Thatcher.

Teachers complain daily of being overworked and underpaid. They face constant threats of violence.

They work the longest hours of any teachers in the developed world. And they are so stressed that 70 per cent of them wouldn’t recommend their profession to anyone.

Surely any self-respecting parent would tell their kids to run for the hills – especially if they’d also been a teacher and are currently at the helm of Scotland’s largest teaching union?

“No, not at all,” says Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS, emphatically. “I know over half of our members wouldn’t recommend teaching as a career but I would.

“I think teaching is a great career. Both [of my children] are loving it.”

But while he firmly believes that to be true, Flanagan is quick to point out the myriad of problems currently facing the profession.

The most obvious one is the ongoing pay dispute, which at the time of writing could still end up with teachers voting for strike action.

Council umbrella body COSLA and the Scottish Government have been negotiating with unions since April last year, however, an agreement has not yet been reached.

But while the fight over pay is the banner headline, it is the range of underlying problems that are the driving force behind the campaign.

And these issues have been bubbling under the surface for a number of years, culminating in the massive explosion that could lead to a Scotland-wide teachers’ strike.

“I think it’s one of the most intense times,” says Flanagan, who started his own teaching career in the late 70s.

“The pay campaign is important in itself, just in terms of living standards, but we’ve made the point to the Scottish Government that it’s also very much a lightning rod for all the discontent that’s there around workload, in particular, and mainstreaming on the cheap and pressures around additional support needs.

“And the general fatigue that’s there around a decade of constant change.

“When I’ve been doing meetings up and down the country, the number of times people have said that they’re supporting the campaign but pay’s not the biggest issue.

“So I think, yes, it’s a culmination of a discontent that’s been rising over the period.”

That growing feeling of discontent amongst teachers coincided with the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), a radical new approach to shake-up the curriculum and qualifications system which had served Scottish pupils for the past three decades.

“It was a proposal that came initially from the Labour/Lib-Dem administration but was then implemented by the SNP government.

But while the principles of CfE were broadly welcomed, it was the implementation of such a massive change which caused problems in schools.

“One of the unfortunate coincidences is that Curriculum for Excellence correlated with the impact of austerity so it was never going to be the best of times to introduce curriculum reform,” explains Flanagan.

“After the 2001 [McCrone] agreement, we had a decade where, for the most part, there was actually quite a lot of investment around in education so initiatives like the Chartered Teacher Programme were funded and were delivering.

“That was quite a comfortable period and, obviously, we had the Scottish Parliament being established so there was a sense of Scottish education working well and progressing well.

“And at that time when Curriculum for Excellence was being developed, there was quite a lot of enthusiasm for doing things differently.

“The 2001 agreement, the dawn of collegiality and the development of Curriculum for Excellence all was good news and people felt quite engaged by that whole process.

“And then, just at the point where CfE was being launched – and any big curriculum development is fraught with difficulty anyway – all the money started getting pulled out the system.

“Quite often, discontents in the school were blamed on CfE when in actual fact, it pre-dated it or had no real connection to it.

“The thing which didn’t happen sufficiently was an investment in professional development around the changes.

“It happened to some extent and people did engage with it, but not to the point where it was deeply rooted and then could withstand some of the later pressures.”

And these pressures were particularly evident in the switch-over from Standard Grade assessment to their replacement National qualifications.

“At the point where a consultation was taking place around new qualifications, all of the teaching unions said we should upgrade Standard Grade, but the consultation didn’t have that as an option,” recalls Flanagan.

“Standard Grade has been the single best assessment initiative for the last three decades.

“It was brought in in the 80s, certification for all, and it was a huge success.

“Standard Grade gave every pupil at the age of 16 a certification. It was a good system because it had bi-level presentation so nobody fell through the gap unless they were a non-attender.

“In the late 90s, they introduced the Higher Still programme and Intermediate 1 and 2.

“The problem for SQA was they were running two sets of exams – Standard Grade and Intermediate – which were actually at the same level.

“It was expensive for SQA to run two qualifications at the same time and they lobbied really, really strongly around having a single system, and that’s why Standard Grade was taken off as an option – the Scottish Government bought into that.

“And that was a big mistake because the new qualifications were supposed to maintain the best of Standard Grade and introduce new innovations.

“But the best feature of Standard Grade was the bi-level presentation and that wasn’t maintained and that’s why we find this huge problem.”

Flanagan continues: “We wanted a delay to the timetable, [former education secretary] Mike Russell wouldn’t agree to it because the referendum was coming up and he didn’t want to be accused of yet another delay because there was already a one-year delay and the other parties kicked into the SNP about that.

“But we were saying the schools weren’t ready. SQA finished the qualification the week before schools were supposed to start them. Schools hadn’t had any time to prepare.

“There was a lot of buy-in to CfE, people in the EIS who had taught for years were saying it was like going back to the old days where the teacher was in charge.

“People were up for that, but if you’ve worked a system for years, it takes a bit of time for people to operate in a different arrangement and the frustration started to build in about why we weren’t seeing all these wonderful improvements.”

As Flanagan has quite clearly detailed, any big change in schools – particularly in an area as major as assessments – doesn’t come without its problems, so perhaps it is no great surprise that the Scottish Government’s enthusiasm for Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSAs) has become another bone of contention.

The SNSAs are designed for children in P1, P4, P7 and S3, supposedly to help identify their progress in literacy and numeracy and support teachers’ professional judgement.

Yet the reality is that a lot of teachers believe the assessments are a step backwards – and they are especially critical of the P1 testing regime.

“The Scottish Government wanted to show quicker progress and started talking about standardised tests,” explains Flanagan.

“You can get kids through standardised tests – that’s what happened with 5-14.

“That system which was there in the 90s had been set aside by Curriculum for Excellence, so when they started talking about standardised tests, people said this is just going back.

“We engaged with them to try and make them diagnostic assessments, to minimise the potential league table result to make sure you couldn’t teach the test and we agreed a set of guidelines, one of them being teachers could use the assessment where they wanted, where appropriate and with pupils who they thought it was appropriate.

“What happened was that 26 out of 32 councils said no, we’ll do the tests in these two weeks because we want to prepare the results.

“We said the reasons for these guidelines is you’re not supposed to compare the results.

“It’s the Scottish Government’s own fault, the narrative around it hasn’t been bought into by schools because they’ve over-talked how important they are.

“That parliamentary debate was woeful. I watched the whole two and a half hours of it, it was depressing.

“It wasn’t standardised tests that were being debated, it was ‘are you for or against the Scottish Government’.”

It’s not hard to agree with Flanagan on that point, particularly as far as P1 assessments are concerned.

The issue has become a political weapon, with every opposition party using it as a stick to beat the SNP with.

Whether or not they are actually detrimental to the four and five-year-olds at the centre of the debate – which has been widely claimed – seems to have become a secondary issue.

Flanagan says: “We had actually said, in terms of the guidelines being established, that they should drop the P1 assessments because all you’re doing is benchmarking what the kids’ pre-school experience has been and the danger is it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“We are absolutely not against assessment, but assessment has to take place constantly and our concern is that this assessment wasn’t the be all and end all.

“Primary one is very labour intensive in terms of the age of the children and the teacher and building up the relationship.

“The teachers get to know the kids inside out, they have to, so they know by Christmas what the strengths and weaknesses are and what the next steps are.”

The EIS asked its members to give feedback on the P1 assessments so it could report back to the government, and a few of those responses revealed that some children had found the process so overwhelming that they had been reduced to tears.

When this became public knowledge following a freedom of information request, John Swinney came under even more fire, which ended up with parliament voting to scrap testing for P1s.

“The majority of the responses [from EIS members] were critical but you would expect that – the people who are going to respond are the people who are most agitated,” says Flanagan.

“And we gave all of that to the Scottish Government as part of the evaluation process.

“Within that, there were some people who said it had been a difficult experience for the children and they had been upset.

“I had this discussion with John Swinney and said that’s someone self-reporting and the reason they’re telling you that is that they were told to carry out these assessments in a particular way by their headteacher, who was told to carry it out in a particular way by their local authority.

“And the consequence was this became stressful.

“The school doesn’t have a computer suite so the kids had to be taken, one by one, to the headteacher’s office to use the computer so the stakes are already up there.

“And then the kid doesn’t know how to use a mouse, they’ve never seen one before, and so they start crying.

“People were saying, why would the teacher do that? Because they can’t turn round and say, ‘I’m not doing this’ if they’ve been told to do this by their employer.

“There were definitely incidences reported to us, but we didn’t say it was widespread.

“What we did say was the kids who couldn’t do it just guessed because they’re all multiple choice.

“The key point we’re saying is that if you actually just leave it to teachers, they will use them appropriately and if they’re useful, they’re useful, and if they’re not, they’re not.

“Teacher knowledge is absolutely more critical to pupil progress than standardised assessments.”

Towards the end of last year, perhaps spurred on by the growing momentum of the EIS’ ‘Value Education, Value Teachers’ pay campaign – which saw more than 30,000 people march through the streets of Glasgow – teachers began to become more vocal about their discontent, opening up about the wide-scale problems they face on a daily basis through a series of damning letters.

It emerged that 120 teachers had written to Nicola Sturgeon directly, copying in the EIS to a lot of them.

“The thing that struck me was almost all of them said they supported the pay campaign, but that was incidental,” says Flanagan.

“The number of letters I read that said, I really love my job, I just want to be able to do it better but here’s all the things that are stopping me.

“And it was all about mainstreaming and behaviour issues and additional support needs.

“It’s a huge issue in terms of people trying to cope with the pressure.”

And as we approach the eleventh hour in the pay talks, there is now the real prospect that these teachers, who have put up with intensely pressurised working conditions for too long now, will favour strike action ahead of any revised offer made to them.

Indeed, the notification to all 32 councils of the intention to ballot for strike action has already been issued.

But Flanagan says the union is still willing to suspend that vote in order to put an improved pay offer to members in one final attempt to resolve the long-running pay dispute.

“If there is a fresh offer, we will suspend the strike ballot and consult members in a consultative ballot to get their views on the offer,” he says.

“The industrial action ballot has started, if nothing changes, that will definitely proceed.

“But if we get a fresh offer before the ballot papers go out then we would suspend that ballot and take the fresh offer to members.

“In one sense, the campaign has been successful in that it’s generating improved offers, but it’s like drawing teeth, we’re having to go down to the wire.

“There will be members who think if we actually go to statutory ballot and win a vote for strike action, that will get a further improvement.”

By the end of this month, it will become clear whether years and years of worsening working conditions has really pushed teachers so far that they feel strike action is the only way to be heard.

And if that happens, it will be a very dark day, not just for Swinney, but for the whole
of Scotland.

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