AGM 2021 President Speech

Created on: 10 Jun 2021

As the first ever virtual EIS President, I would like to welcome all delegates to this first full online AGM.

The EIS is a member-led Trade Union and it is important that policy is formulated by our members through the motions that will be brought over the next three days by delegates representing their local associations.

So, we are having this our first virtual policy making full AGM and hopefully everything will run smoothly over the next two and a half days.

Before I speak, I would like to welcome Andrene Bamford to the office bearers’ team as Vice President elect and to thank Bill Ramsey for everything he has done in his last three years as an office bearer. I also want to wish Heather Hughes all the best for her upcoming year as President and I hope that at some point in her year we will be able to return to face to face meetings.

As president this has been a strange year. I have chaired meetings, attended and spoken at conferences, even run election hustings all from home. I have varied the room I sit in just to make things more interesting and last year when the sun shone, I joined in meetings while sitting under an umbrella in the garden.

We have all learned a lot along the way about doing things virtually and I am sure the phrases “you’re on mute” and “is that a legacy hand” will be appearing in a dictionary some time soon as the year’s most frequently used new phrases.

Over this last year I have used the word unprecedented so many times that I wanted to try to find another word to use today but unprecedented is undoubtedly what this year has been.

The COVID 19 Pandemic has had a profound impact on all spheres of life and this has been particularly acutely felt in every sector of education. The effects of the pandemic will continue to reverberate well into the future.

I want to praise all of the hard work and professionalism of colleagues in schools, colleges and universities across Scotland who have worked extremely hard this last year in their efforts to maintain the education of our young people, in finding practical solutions to the challenges faced and doing this despite fears for their own and their families’ health.

During this year, teachers have demonstrated how much they were essential, key, front-line workers. Teachers kept schools open and safe during times of exceptional disruption. They worked in unsafe situations, supported children and families, volunteered to work in hubs to support other key workers while also teaching classes online.

Our lecturers in FE and HE have continued to provide education for their students in very difficult circumstances using mainly online but also some face-to face teaching, working many more hours and teaching larger classes online.

Dealing with the issues left in the wake of the pandemic will require partnership going forward. The Government must work with teachers and lecturers because we are the ones best placed to understand our pupils and their needs, both educational needs and their health and wellbeing needs including mental health. It is vital that sufficient funding is provided to give us the resources to do this.

We have been calling for more resources for mental health in our schools, colleges and universities for many years. And for many years our young people have had to wait for months and even years to access any support. This was not good enough pre-pandemic and it is absolutely not good enough now. There has been, and will continue to be, a huge increase in the need for mental-health support due to the pandemic. During this last year so many of our young people have missed out on social contact, have experienced grief and loss, have lived with stressed parents, have been subjected to domestic abuse, hunger, and so many other issues.

For so many of our young people, school is the stable, dependable part of their existence and they have struggled without it. Cracks in our society will be irreparable if we do not act now. Money must be made available to education - pupils affected by the pandemic are the future of our country and we cannot afford to fail them. We cannot afford to have a generation of young people who are being affected by mental health issues.

It is not only our students who have struggled with mental health issues during the pandemic, many of our members have also suffered tremendous amounts of work-related stress leading to them becoming ill. Support must be made available to our members and employers must ensure all staff are supported.

I wrote the word poverty and wanted to speak about it – but where to even start? We have had many, many years of man-made austerity where the poorest were blamed and made poorer while the rich became even richer. Every single one of us has seen child poverty in our classrooms. The EIS has campaigned against poverty for a very long time.

But the pandemic, while it has been awful for every one of us, has clearly had an infinitely greater impact on the already disadvantaged families and pupils in our schools, colleges and universities.

The loss of jobs caused by the pandemic has had a knock-on effect on our young people. Students leaving schools, colleges and universities last year, and again this year, have had to face a shrinking jobs market with fewer opportunities.

Many of last year’s leavers are still looking for employment and will now be joined in their search for work by this year’s leavers making it even more difficult.

The pandemic has also shown the absolutely, essential role that educational establishments play every day -in nurturing and developing our young people, in supporting their well-being and resilience and in providing pathways for achievement and attainment for all.

It has been said many times that education can break the cycle of poverty for our students. Education can give our students a better future. Now as we are beginning to come out of the pandemic, fundamental change is needed to truly address the poverty-led attainment gap and make schools places where equality is for everyone and where poverty has no place.

According to the OECD figures, Scottish teachers work longer hours and have larger classes than teachers in most other countries –This overly burdensome workload has been the focus of our campaigning for quite some time. Before the pandemic the majority of our members in schools and colleges were working an average of 11 hours per week over their contracted hours. However, teacher’s workload during the pandemic has increased hugely. This level of workload is unsustainable, and we are in danger of losing teachers at an even faster rate than before the pandemic.

To enable teachers and lecturers to fully support our young people in recovering from the effects of this last year, we need to reduce class sizes and give our overworked colleagues more planning time so they can develop content to suit the needs of all individuals in their classes.

In the run up to the Scottish election all political parties talked the talk about how much they valued all sectors of education. Their manifestos outlined their commitments. We heard all parties making promises to reduce the workload burden on our members by reducing class sizes and teacher contact time as well as offering permanent contracts to teachers currently struggling on zero-hours contracts.

The election is now over and done and now is the time for these words to become actions and actions that are fully, financially supported. What we need now is a period of support and stability across all sectors. And we need to recognise the work done by teachers and lecturers across Scotland.

We need an end to the constant undermining of our FE colleagues’ professional status. For so many years our FELA members have had to constantly fight with their employers to be treated fairly. This last year their fight has been to protect the role of lecturer and to be entitled to the pay and terms and conditions of a lecturer when actually carrying out the role of a lecturer. FELA carried out possibly the first national successful statutory ballot based on virtual campaigning. And all of this has happened at the same time as FELA members are becoming GTCS registered in the new category of college lecturer.

This needs to cease. Government needs to ensure proper governance of the college sector and make sure that college principals respect the professionalism of our members.

Another issue that is raising increasing concern within FELA is the imminent privatisation of Shetland College. The merger of Shetland College with the NAFC will take Shetland College out of the public sector by creating a private new college. The Scottish Funding Council – a non-departmental government body - has been facilitating this. This privatisation of public sector education in Scotland is deeply worrying.

After a crushing year, teachers have been offered, for the majority, an insulting 1% pay increase which by the year’s end won’t even keep us up with inflation. Teachers deserve more – all of our colleagues deserve more! We have suffered long enough from the “idea” of austerity and it is time to recognise the people who are truly important to society. Without the co-operation of teachers, schools don’t work and throughout this last year, without the co-operation of teachers our schools would not have worked at all.

In the HE sector our members have been offered pay deals over several years which have allowed their salaries to decline in real terms and our EIS ULA colleagues at the SRUC are currently balloting members for action due to the completely inadequate pay offer at this particular institution.

We need to keep up pressure on government to ensure teachers and lecturers are offered pay deals that recognise their worth. Investing in teachers is investing in our future generation and is a benefit for all of society.

One potentially good piece of post-election news is the Scottish Government commitment to the provision of free musical instrument tuition. This is to be welcomed and is something the EIS national body supported by the IMT network has long campaigned for.

My role in my local association is to support colleagues in health and safety and this year has truly shown the importance of health and safety in our schools. The International Workers Memorial Day is always a sad day for me personally but it was so much more heartbreaking this year. This year we lost some of our own members and many NHS colleagues along with so many people often in the lowest paid employment who were put at the highest risk during the pandemic.

In schools and colleges the EIS supported and developed reps to give a better understanding of workers’ rights under health and safety and in how to use risk assessments to keep ourselves safe in the workplace.

 In schools across the country there has been much collegiate working around keeping workplaces safe -or at least as safe as possible. However, the good practice in this area has been too variable across local authorities, often due to managers’ refusal to work with trade union reps. We must continue to highlight the importance of health and safety and the importance of collegiate working between managers and TU reps which is the best way to ensure everyone in the workplace remains safe.

To finish, I would like to express my thanks to all EIS staff who also have had to adapt to working in completely different ways this year. I especially want to thank all the people who have kept me organised which has not been an easy task.

I also want to thank my Aberdeen city LA executive and all the members in Aberdeen and special thanks to the local association secretaries Heather and Ron for all their support this year.

Thank you.