Created on: 07 Jun 2018 | Last modified: 25 Apr 2023
Colleagues, it is a privilege to have the opportunity to address you today as President of the EIS, and it is a particular pleasure to do so from the stage of the Caird Hall here in Dundee.
For it was on this very stage, that my mum made her dance debut at the age of 3. This was a dance career which went on to include a Cossack Dance, a Sailor’s Hornpipe and a routine dressed as Little Red Riding Hood.
However, you will be relieved to hear I do not intend to re-enact any of these. Although who knows where the mood might take me. No guarantees.
Look at the General Secretary. Is he not just a picture of delight at the very thought?!
It’s okay Larry. As a P4 child once said to me in this very city "Here – there’s nae need for that Miss Fisher."
Neither the first, nor the last person to have that thought I have to say.
Okay, so that's the jokey preamble over with. It's time to move on to my speech.
And it’s at this point I wish I had writen one.
One of the best parts of being EIS President is of course the visits to the Local Associations and their schools. And as I travelled the length and breadth of the country on a fabulous EIS safari, I found that many of the same issues and themes arose time and again.
One matter which almost all LA's impressed upon me was the absolute necessity of me saying in my speech that my visit to their LA was the best one of my Presidential year and that it was better than my visits to any of the others.
So, I intend to deal with that by channelling Bruce Forsyth in Strictly Come dancing and say "You are all my favourites".
But colleagues, I would very much like to thank all the LA's who invited me to visit them and to visit their schools in both my Vice Presidential and my Presidential years.
No, I would like to thank everyone in the Glasgow LA for all their help and support and encouragement, and in particular Susan Quinn, Carolyn Ritchie and Jayne Rowe for their friendship and good advice all the way through this.
I would like to thank all the LA's and Self Governing Associations and networks and staff for the tremendous work they do for our members.
That is, of course, with the notable exception of my mother, without whose passionate belief in the importance of good education and passionate belief in me, I could not have done this. Always listening.
It would be a shocking omission, colleagues, not thank all of our amazing EIS staff, all of whom have shown me unfailing kindness and patience.
And I would of course like to thank the General Secretary and all the officials for their unfailing support and help.
As I said earlier colleagues, there have been common themes and issues emerging from my LA visits and one of these is a pressing concern about data.
Concern about the collection of data, about the use and purpose of that data, about the importance given to that data over qualitative and formative assessment, about the workload attached to it, about the stress attached to it and so on.
And this growing obsession with data runs contrary to the ethos of CfE. As indeed does the introduction of standardised assessment. I'm sure we've all been aware of the recent outcry over the experience of P1 sitting the SNSA's. Reports of wee 4 and 5 year olds crying. Saying to their teachers "I'm not very good, am I?" This is heart-breaking stuff.
How is that experience affecting how those tiny people are feeling about school? About themselves? What damage is being done there?
The EIS has been concerned about the SNSA's for all stages and not just P1 all the way through. Because let's be honest, they weren't brought in for educational reasons.
They were brought in as a response to ill-informed, inaccurate jibes made in the Scottish Parliament about alleged falling standards in schools. Jibes which took no account of context and which showed little educational insight.
And this is one of many problems with data. Flawed data, collected in dubious circumstances has too often been used in the past as a stick with which to beat schools.
This is the thin edge of the wedge colleagues. We seem to be present at the dawn of a new obsession with data, driven partly by Pupil Equity Fund. By a desperation to prove that the Pupil Equity Fund has worked. It's an obsession which will blight both our primary and our secondary sectors.
Recently at our Education Conference some of us heard from a representative from Education Scotland, extolling the virtues of a new system which is apparently on its way, whereby schools will be able to compare their data with that of other schools. Why?
Why would we want to do that, I ask myself? I have to say I also asked the person in question on the day.
And the answer: "To see how your school is doing compared to other local schools."
Again – why? So, in our schools, we can feel bad if we're not doing as well. So we can feel superior if we're doing better? Does this really create a healthy atmosphere and those within our learning communities? Within our education system?
Our secondary schools are already blighted with this via the league tables of exam results compiled every year by the media amongst others. This leads to enormous pressure being put on secondary colleagues to explain and justify their results.
So we have to drill down into the reasons, the answer to my "why?" And I can only conclude that it is to create competition between schools to make us want to get better results. Well I have two messages for those who with to do this.
First, teachers already want to get better results for their pupils, but not because we want to compete with the school down the road but because we care about the children and young people in our classes and we want the best for them.
And second, stop trying to create competition between schools. Education is not the marketplace.
You do this and you end up with the situation they have in England and Wales, where schools have banners up outside with quotes from their OFSTED reports as they try to compete for pupils.
Colleagues, we must as a profession take a firm stand against the obsession with data. It is harmful for the learners and it is harmful for the well being of the profession. So much for Tackling Bureaucracy, eh?
Resist the notion that the collections and use of data is vital. Resist the obsession with testing and exams. Think of the wonderful, rich learning which goes on in classrooms across the country. That's what matters. I didn't become a teacher to collect data. I became a teacher because I believe in education for education's sake.
Beware colleagues of the dangers written oh so succinctly by Michael Rosen in his poem "That Data Have Landed."
First they said they needed data about the children to find out what they're learning. Then they said they needed data about the children to make sure they are learning. Then the children only learnt what could be turned into data. Then the children became data.
Another common issue which I heard from teachers is the growing mental health crisis in our schools. Teachers are reporting that they see more and more children and young people who are experiencing mental health difficulties.
Teachers are desperately worried about their pupils and feel they don't have the skills to support them.
Guidance and pastoral care teachers told me that they spend much more of their time, in some cases all of their time, trying to help pupils who are suffering from severe anxiety, from depression, who have suicidal thoughts, who are self-harming, who are being drawn into risky behaviours. And they feel that there is little or no help for them.
At one point this year, a government response was that all pupils have "access" to a mental health worker.
"Access." What does that even mean? Accidentally bumping into an Ed Psych on the way to gym does not constitute "access" to a mental health worker nor does it constitute meaningful mental health support.
The numbers of Educational Psychologists across the country have been cut and cut again. They cannot possibly provide mental health care to all the children and young people who need it.
And let's be clear, when Educational Psychologists do come into a school (which isn't often give the ridiculous number of schools they are expected to cover), it is to provide advice on children with Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties or to provide a diagnosis of dyslexia or Autism Spectrum Disorder. The idea that they are there as a "mental health worker" for pupils to "access" is laughable.
In schools, colleges and universities, just as in the country as a whole, we need proper, robust, effective, widespread mental health services. 6 weeks of Cognitibe Behaviour Therapy if you're lucky just will not cut it for those in serious mental distress.
It also needs to be much easier for everyone to find and access mental health support. Trying to find help can be like trying to negotiate a labyrinth whilst blindfolded. Some people might ask why this is a concern for us in the EIS but the answers are simple. Because those suffering with mental health difficulties are the children, young people and students in our care.
They are the parents and families with whom we work and because it's us too. It's teachers and their families as well.
Poverty, and in particular the poverty related attainment gap, has been high on the agenda in terms of the national, political discourse for some time now. And teachers and schools are clear that they want to play their part in closing that gap.
But we should also be clear that we cannot tackle poverty alone. That we need wider societal change.
We need to be clear that having people living in poverty is a choice which society makes and which successive governments at Westminster have certainly made. It does not happen by chance. It happens as a result of economic choices.
It happens as a result of choosing to spend billions on war and Weapons of Mass Destruction. It happens as a result of allowing companies and the super-rich to avoid paying their taxes.
It happens as a result of allowing firms to employ people on zero hours contracts; of allowing bogus self-employment and the so-called "gig" economy to grow. It happens as a result of benefits cuts, of a punitive sanctions regime, and of shameful policies such as the 2 child policy which tells children they are less worthy than their siblings simply because of an accident of birth.
And there is a clear causal link between poverty and mental illness. "Living in poverty at age of 1, more likely to experience mental illness by 35." Our society needs to make different choices if we are serious about tackling poverty because schools can’t fix it by themselves.
For a country whose priority is education and closing the attainment gap, the current, growing recruitment and retention crisis could not be worse timing. And this would be a strange speech indeed if I did not bang the drum we have been banging all year.
Colleagues, I've heard a very interesting theory a number of times over the year as to why there's a recruitment and retention crisis. From more than one source, I have heard it said that maybe things wouldn’t be so bad if only the unions didn't talk so much about how bad things are.
Isn't that brilliant? It makes me laugh every time I hear or read about it, albeit I'm laughing bitterly whilst trying to control my rage. So, the solution is not to fix the problems. It's that we should stop talking about them and go around grinning insanely like the extras from stepford wives.
Never mind that what is being asked of teachers is not deliverable within the working week. Never mind that schools are struggling with years and years of cuts leaving us under-staffed and under-resourced. Never mind that the extension of the presumption of mainstreaming without proper funding has placed enormous pressure on already overstretched schools and staff. Never mind that there has been constant change for the last 10 years, with possibly more unnecessary change to come in the Education Bill. Never mind all that. It will be fine as long as we just don't talk about it.
Well, with the research from Bath Spa University indicating that 40% of Scottish Teachers would leave in the next 18 months, if they could, I think we need to talk about it.
To be honest what we do to teachers in this country is ridiculous. We overwork them. We under pay them. We tell them incorrectly that they are part of a failing system. We tell them that what they are doing in their classrooms is insufficiently "excellent." We cut budgets and constantly expect them to do more with less. And then we're surprised that 40% want to leave. I'm actually surprised that figure isn't higher.
Teachers have had enough of doing more WITH less and more FOR less. And when other countries and other careers pay more, is it any wonder that teachers are voting with their feet?
And again I have been doing a lot of bitter mutter when I read the Scottish Government response to the lack of teachers that "teacher numbers have risen by 500."
Well I hate to point out the obvious, but school rolls have risen. There are more children so of course more teachers were employed. If there had been 500 more teachers for the same number of children, that would be an improvement. As it is, we are running to stand still.
Still 800 unfilled posts earlier this year. Still departments in Secondary schools closing and subjects no longer being offered.
And this brings me to our pay claim. For we believe, in the EIS, that a restorative pay rise is crucial to solving the recruitment and retention crisis. We estimate that our pay has fallen in real terms by 20-24%. Don't let anyone tell you 10% is too much. Especially when we are expected to fix everything.
There is rarely an ill in society which doesn't become the teachers' job to fix.
In a way, this is testament to the faith people have in the transformative power of education. However, it does make you wonder why we are not paid a salary which is truly commensurate with our value to society. Because let us be clear; education is the glue which holds society together. It begins with us. And it will end without us.
Without education there are no nurses. Without education there are no doctors. Without education there are no plumbers coming round to mend your burst pipes. Without education there are no firefighters rescuing you from burning buildings.
The skills and knowledge to go out and play a positive role in society are learned in nurseries and primaries and secondaries and colleges and universities across the land. We are the only profession inextricably linked to all other jobs, all other workers, all other careers.
If you value a health service, then you need to value education. If you value a system of justice, then you need to value education. If you value the emergency services, then you need to value education. And if you value education, then you quite urgently need to value teachers. Because none of it is happening without us.