AGM 2022 General Secretary Speech

Created on: 10 Jun 2022 | Last modified: 16 Jun 2022


Good afternoon colleagues,

Larry Flanagan General Secretary – last time speaker!

I’d like to start, colleagues, at this first in-person event in three years, with a repetition of a huge public vote of thanks to all our members, all of Scotland's teachers, and a vote of appreciation for the heroic efforts that were made over the past two years plus of the Covid pandemic.

I was recently at international summit of the teaching profession and I felt obliged to remind the gathering that whilst for many in the room being together physically was in a sense “new”; because most had been working from home, the actual school lockdown periods, challenging though they were, had been relatively short and for most teachers being physically in their workplace, with all the attendant risks of Covid, has been the norm over the last two years and had an impact on teacher wellbeing, teacher resilience and teacher attitudes.

And as we move into what is a Covid recovery period, I think we have to remind the politicians, the civil servants, the local councils, of that fact is that, over the last 2 years, teachers like other public sector workers have delivered throughout the Covid pandemic and frankly in a post Covid environment and we all deserve better than what is currently being offered. The business as usual attitude, which has developed very, very quickly, amongst people who used to talk about building back better, is simply not acceptable and we have to keep reminding others of the sacrificing effort that teachers have persevered with over the last two years.

Ten years ago, in my first AGM speech as General Secretary, I referenced the economic crisis which had been visited upon the country, at that time, by the greed of an unregulated banking and finance sector and which the public sector was being asked to pay for through pay freezes, pay restraint, attacks on pensions which were very real a decade ago, and continue to impact now, and cuts on living standards.

And here we are again – ten years later, with teachers and other public sector workers, being asked to pay for a crisis not of our making.

We heard yesterday from Jim Halfpenny about the levels of obscene wealth being enjoyed by the privileged elite whilst food bank queues continue to grow. And we have to really call that out and I think Jim did it very well in his speech yesterday. This is not a poor country. There is not a lack of resource or finance across the UK. There is a lack of political will to make the decisions that reverse the balance of poverty and wealth in our societies. And Trade Unions should be at the forefront in demanding change from our politicians.

There were not teachers appearing on the Sunday Times Rich List a couple of weeks ago. But we should certainly be commenting on the wealth that was displayed in that particular publication

And I belive, as a Trade Union, we have a very simple answer to this question as to asking us to pay again for the crisis, and that is simply no. We are not prepared to be the ones who make the sacrifices going forward. And I believe that as a union – we are in stronger place than we were 10 years ago to fight back.

We have developed a union over the last decade, we have developed a very strong organising approach to how we operate, which is based on the premise of involving members in the activities of the union; yes, we wish to offer a gold-plated service when members need legal support and advice, and it was interesting to hear the discussion earlier this morning, but just to be clear, just because we offer insurance we are not an insurance company, we are a combative trade union, prepared and able to take on the fights we are required to undertake.

Value Education Value Teachers was a successful campaign, but it took nearly two years to raise membership engagement to the point we knew we would win the strike ballot that we had set in motion. And more to the point. it took those two years and the activities of members, including the massive demonstration, to persuade John Swinney as Deputy First Minister that we knew we would win the ballot. Which is the only reason, the only reason why the money appeared on the table at the 11th hour.  

Colleagues, it will not take two years again to build that state of strike readiness. We are starting from a much higher level of member engagement, we are better organised, we are stronger and even just over the last day and this morning listening to the enthusiasim of speakers at the rostrum there, we are ready now for this 10% pay campaign and we will be strike ready come the Autumn. 

You were not all at the incoming President's dinner last night for kindred guests. I thought Andrene was doing her Presidential speech and I thought I was going to have to tie her down to the chair. She got so enthusiastic about we are going to batter you. Shirley-Anne Sommerville was sitting next to her, she was saying I can't wait to get started on this pay campaign.

I just feel that in the hall here, people are ready for this fight because you have made the sacrifices over the last two years and we are not prepared to see the victory of Value Education Value Teachers wash down the drain because other people are making the wrong decisons. So, come the Autumn, COSLA and Scottish Government be on notice, we will be strike ready.

I may not be on the platform at the rallies, colleagues, but I can guarantee you, I will be on the picket lines. So, let’s build our campaign and let’s win another 10% that our members deserve.

I have been asked over the last week or so by a number of journalists and media outlets, to reflect on my decade as General Secretary. So I took a look at my first General Secretary report. Education Scotland had just been created. And I made that point that we had to be careful about the Education Scotland juggernaut, perhaps turned out to be more of a dinky model, though the threat was there. New qualifications were being introduced. I quoted at the time 1 in 10 pupils living in povery and shamefully, a decade later, we nearly have 1 in 4 school pupils living in poverty!

We heard from Ken Muir yesterday about the need for educational agencies to be practitioner facing. It was good to hear Ken say that and it's in his report, which is an influential report. Because that's what we have been saying for the last ten years. 

Trust teachers, give teachers power and you will have a better education system than you have at the moment.

I have a strong faith in the empowerment agenda as being the right agenda. In theory it is signed up to by everyone from Scottish Government down to the smallest local authority. Yet here we stand in Dundee where the Council is impossing a faculty structure against the expressed wish of classroom teachers. I'm not sure they could even spell empowerment if that's what they think it actually means in practice. 


We have said to the Councillors, if you can demonstrate in a single school there is staff support for faculties, then we will not oppose it. But if you have an empowered school agenda, you cannot, and headteachers cannot, tell staff that this is the change that's going to happen. Saying that you have consulted people, and then going ahead and doing what you have always wanted to do, that is top down management and not an empowered system. 

So this fight in Dundee is about more than faculties. It's about the principle of empowerment. Are you serious about giving teachers more control or are you just doing another paper exercise and really, ultimately nothing will change. 

The empowerment agenda is about teacher agency, and it is about professional autonomy. It is clearly not an uncontested area in practice because for teachers to be empowered, others have to give up power and those others include Scottish Government, Local Authorities, educational agencies and even school management teams where collegiality is not the norm. And we need to rise to this challenge.

I know when empowerment was first talked about, I wrote an article in the SEJ and talked about teacher agency, I did get one angry email from a member that said, "Not somebody else that's going to be telling us what to do," and I said, "No you're the teacher agency. It's not a teacher agency, it's your teacher agency." It's instructive that that was just the instinctive reaction. Oh here's somebody else coming to tell me how to do my job. 

I read recently a book from Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley, “5 Paths of student engagement” it references the challenges of the pandemic but also highlight the importance of carefully analysing lessons to be learned from what they describe as an accidental real time social experiment in delivering education in different ways. 

The key lesson, I believe, from that period, and all of you I'm sure will share this conclusion, is the absolutely critical role of the teacher and the teacher pupil interaction to the nurturing of wellbeing among children and as the basis of all successful learning. It may seem obvious to us as practitioners, but it's something for policy makers, often far removed from school practice, that needs to be constantly said and repeated. We need to have this change, we need to see teachers being trusted - we need to see empowerment being delivered. 

When we talk about our 20:20 campaign, others might see that as about an improvement in teachers' conditions, but actually it is an improvement in a young person's learning environment, and it means that successful learning will be more easily achieved when teachers are being supported appropriately, with the resources to deliver that interaction in the classroom which is aboslutely critical.

I referenced the new qualifications being introduced a decade ago. It’s not been a progressive decade, in terms of qualifications. Frankly we are in a poorer position today with the uppers school qualifications than we were 10 years ago. I could stand here for an hour and explain how we've got here, but what's just happened over May and June is an even higher high stakes exam system than we had when we had standard grades and intermediates. More and more children are dependent upon that exam performance in terms of their next steps.

And we actually have to move beyond that as we consider the next steps in terms of the Ken Muir report. Andy Harvey, this morning, used the phrase a 3-year treadmill. Well that's what we've done to children in secondary schools. We just drive them through assessment, after assessment, after assessment and most of these assessments only decide which is your next assessment target. So we need a signifcant reform.

The pandemic demonstrated that pupils and parents trust teacher judgements. When the exams didn't happen - low and behold - teachers were able to accredit pupils in a much more positive way than the exam system whcih was exposed as being essentially inequitable to begin with. Any system that is based on algorithims and quotas in terms of progression is loaded against those who are on the thresholds, those who are from the poorer backgrounds aspiring to qualifications. And we need to say to Louise Hayward the starting point for qualifications is our experience of the pandemic. Trust teachers' professional judgement in terms of pupil progression.

Colleagues – I mentioned at the book launch - or rather the not the book launch - how odd it was in editing the book to review the recent history of the EIS and in particular the 1980s when we were campaigning against Thatcher, in a period that really shaped the union as a trade union, and to realise that much of what is lived experience for me and my generation is literally history for many of our members.

Nearly 50% of our members are aged 40 or younger. So many of them didn't even exist in the 1980s when we were doing these campaigns. That's a great strength for the union, in that we have such a youthful membership, but my 43 years longevity does also give a bit of perspective of where we were and where we are now.

I do want to make the point that there has been really strong progress across in critcal areas in terms of Scottish education over the last 40 years.

Today there is an absolute consensus about the need to tackle the impact of poverty on education and to promote equity and equality across the system – this is a critically important agenda for the kind of society which we want Scotland to be and the EIS helped shape that agenda over the last 10/15 years in particular, through the work of the equality committee and through the campaigning work of the Institute. 

When I started teaching in 1979, schools didn't seek to tackle the impact of poverty. The actually organised around the attainment gap. Some pupils were placed in so called “remedial classes” in S1 and stayed in those classes until S4.

In 1979, when I started teaching, the majority of boys in Scotland left school without formal qualifications because the only qualifications was the O grade, and the O grade was designed for the top 30% of pupils in a school. So these young people had to stay on in school until 16, because of the school leaving age being raised in the 70s, were leaving school without qualifications. And I said in a recent article, my first 4th year class - I had 23 kids 19 boys and four girls and every single one of them left school to go straight onto the dole queue. And nobody batted an eyelid because they weren't the ones destined for university.  

Now that situation today would be completely unacceptable, it was unacceptable then, but the fact that today there would be an outcry if that was to happen I think shows some of the progress we have made in changing the agenda. So, I despair when I hear politicians talk about a halcyon past that somehow we have fallen from. It didn’t exist and frankly we need politicians to stop their constant bickering and to lend Scotland’s teachers their full support and more specifically to ensure that teachers have the proper resource and conditions to deliver for our young people today, because that is the challenge that lies before us.

Before I finish, because I've been talking about schools, I would like to acknowledge the work being done by our members in FELA and ULA – we often concentrate on schools, but our education system needs to be genuinely comprehensive and the work our SGAs in terms of colleges and universities, based on the same principles of equity, equality and professional agency, and it is critical to the complete comprehensive nature of Scottish education.

And in particular both have been involved in industrial action but in particular I want to acknowledge the fighting spirit of FELA who have been forced to engage in strike action repeatedly in protection of the college sector and college members and I think the main body does owe a certain debt to them. Because their willingness to fight and their ability to win, I think gave the general body confidence that we too could do the same. So a big thank you to FELA and ULA. 

I try to avoid being sucked into the party political Punch and Judy show, which is the norm in Scotland. We are a constructive union and we will spaek to all parties and all levels of Government, obviously we've been speaking to the SNP-led Scottish Government for a considerable period of time.

But I do wish to call out a singular failure of the SNP Government and that is in the area of pre-5. I think shamefully, the government has facilitated the marginalisation of nursery teachers in our pre-5 sector, despite all the research evidence as to the efficacy of their role.

It seems to me that it makes more sense to prevent the attainment gap establishing itself than to engage in a Sisyphus like struggle to close it. It has been a failure we have fewer nursery teachers now, when the need for nursery teachers is greater than ever. And if you had nursery teachers engaging with children on the floors of nurseries, those young people from poorer backgrounds would be starting formal schooling in a much better place and the attainment gap would not be as wide as it is today.

I could spend time colleagues detailing the challenges we face in areas such as ASN, assessment, wellbeing, workload, but frankly the motions being debated at AGM cover all these issues comprehensively. I think we are creating a very positive set of actions going forward from our debates.

I do, just before I finish with some personal comments, I do want to make one slightly aside reference, and that's to an area of work that members in schools might not always pick up on. But one of the things as General Secretary is I do get to engage at some level in terms of international work, as most of you know I am European President of ETUCE and I will be continuing with that role. I don't think you can underestimate the importance of the solidarity work that the union engages in.

It's often just an article in the SEJ or on the website we put out messages of support. But I have recently been in the frontline states in terms of Ukraine, where trade unions there have been receiving the refugees. And our £50,000 donation has been given to trade unions in Poland and Moldova and Romania and it is helping in the very practical sense to help the displaced people in Ukraine because of the war.

I have had the priviledge of speaking with the General Secretary of the Ukrainian teachers' union and they are continuing to provide online learning for children in Ukraine and those who have had to leave the country. At all of these meetings, they thank us for the solidarity we extend to them. The solidarity work that we take is truly critical to those who are facing really difficult circumstances.

If you are looking for a lunchtime fringe, Kevin Courtney from the NEU is speaking at the international fringe. Kevin and I are just back from a visit to Colombia, we were part of the observer group in terms of the elections there. And again every time we met with people who were on the wrong end of the injustice in that country, they thanked us for paying attention and making sure that their government knew that the world was watching. So it's really really important. And I hope that going forward in my new Presedential role, I hope to continue close collaboration with Andrea in continuing that international solidarity work. 

So let me, if I may, colleagues – conclude with a few short personal reflections.

I’ll try to do so without becoming too emotional – Tricia and I recently became grandparents and I swear its affected my hormones.


It’s been a great privilege to be General Secretary of the EIS for the last ten year. I have been a trade unionist activist all of my working life and for the past 10 years I have been paid for doing what I used to do in almost all of my spare time.

So – it’s been a blast, colleagues – thank you for the opportunity.

I believe the Institute is in rude health – when I took over, our membership had dipped but we reversed that and we now stand at over 61,000 members and we have the highest rep density we have ever had.

And I mention the Rep density because, school rep is where I began my EIS journey - it is critical to our interaction with members with the union. School rep is the person who is the lynchpin in terms of that interaction and we need to acknowledge the debt we owe for the altruistic service we receive from our reps and ensure that they are being supported in every way they can be.

I hope to have another occasion to speak in more detail with staff, but I also want to publicly thank all of the EIS staff who service this great institution; they are committed and professional in all of their endeavours and also a great source of comradeship and friendship.

I’d like to thank my wife Tricia who has just retired herself after 41 ½ years in the NHS. Tricia doesn’t come to too many EIS events because she says I am always wandering away talking to people. I think she’s only here to make sure I actually go, so that she can book that holiday that we've been talking about.

I’d like to offer my congratulations to Andrea – she will be a brilliant General Secretary and I look forward to seeing how she takes the union forward (with a lot less grumpiness I suspect than the current fella!).

I was asked to provide a General Secretary comment for the latest edition of our student bulletin. I congratulated the students on completing their courses and welcomed them to the profession. I made the point that as teachers they would touch upon, for the better, the lives of thousands and thousands of young people.

They will. As all of you have.

Teaching is a noble profession, and we should all be proud of our career choice.

Despite the challenges that are being enunciated from the rostrum, I would make the same choice again. I have enjoyed being General Secretary, honestly I haven't enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed being a teacher. I actually love teaching. I'm still GTCS registered, so if anyone is looking for a supply English teacher you can give me a call. 

Finally, colleagues, I am really pleased to be stepping aside at an in-person AGM.

The convocation of the EIS is what makes the life of an activist so rewarding. I hope you enjoy and experience that as you go forward.

Thank you for all your support over the past decade, colleagues.

Here’s to the next 10 percent victory.