Teachers and lecturers from across Scotland met last week at the 173rd AGM of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS). Nicholas Cimini, an rs21 and EIS member, reports.
Teachers and lecturers at every level of the Scottish education system are feeling the impact of more than a decade of austerity. Though the mood and the confidence of teachers has been buoyed by the recent success of the tremendous “Value Education, Value Teachers” (VEVT) campaign, teachers in Scotland’s schools continue to have some of the largest class sizes in Europe, class contact hours well-above the OECD average and an underfunded system that’s not equipped to meet the demands of a growing number of pupils identified as having Additional Support Needs (ASN). In post-16 education, lecturers in Scotland’s colleges and universities have, for over a decade, been locked in constant battle with employers over wages, workloads, gender inequalities and casualisation.
It is in this context that, last week over the course of three days, the EIS (the Educational Institute of Scotland), the world’s oldest teacher’s trade union, held its 173rd Annual General Meeting in Perth. The AGM was attended by around 350 delegates and office bearers, and a range of invited guests, and it is the main decision making body of the union.
The brilliant success of the VEVT campaign was a key theme over the three days. The highlight of the campaign saw 30,000 teachers and their supporters marching through Glasgow in October 2018 in what Alison Thornton, President of the EIS, described as “the largest ever demonstration in Scotland called by a single trade union.” After such a tremendous display of grassroots participation, and a consultative ballot of members that smashed the anti-trade union thresholds, the campaign delivered a pay rise for teachers of 13.5% over a three year period. Larry Flanagan, the General Secretary, captured the mood when, in his address to delegates, he remarked that “I’d like to start this speech by placing on record an enormous thank you to you the lay leadership of the Institute, for the effort that saw us build, sustain and win the biggest pay campaign in decades.”
The campaign not only delivered an austerity-busting pay rise for teachers, it also led to a grassroots renewal and members re-engaging with the union. As a result, the EIS is now more confident and combative than it has been in a long time. Over the course of the year-long campaign, the EIS processed almost 8,000 new membership applications (admitting almost 4,000 of these), gained 6,000 new followers on Facebook and 4,000 on Twitter, published 40 press releases, 11 reps bulletins including two ballot specials, and sent 62 all members emails keeping them informed blow-by-blow. Membership of the union is now largely female and young, with the General Secretary reporting that over half of all members are currently under 40. According to the General Secretary, “We have a strengthened sense of purpose about what it means to be the EIS. Not just a professional association, but also a trade union with history, muscle and intent.”
Delegates at the AGM determined that workload should now be a key priority. Many speakers described this as the next stage in the VEVT campaign. In practical terms, this means teachers could consider taking strike action if the Scottish government and local councils do not agree to reducing class sizes and contact hours. On this subject, delegates voted overwhelmingly for a motion that outlined a “20:20 Vision”: a reduction of maximum class size from 33 to 20 and of contact time from 22.25 hours a week to 20.
Andrew Fulwood, an EIS Council member, said “Time and time again you’ve heard people talk about how their workload gets out of hand.” Another Council member Allan Crosbie described current class sizes and contact time as a “workload injustice”. Jennifer Gaffney, a delegate from South Lanarkshire, agreed and remarked, “The reality is, we are done-in.”
Related to this, the inclusion of pupils with ASN in mainstream schools was another common feature of many debates. The number of pupils with an identified ASN in Scotland’s schools has risen to an all time high. Official figures show a 68% increase since 2012. Unlike in England and Wales, local councils in Scotland have a statutory duty to provide education in a mainstream setting unless certain exceptions apply. This “presumption of mainstreaming” has, however, taken place on the cheap; meaning that many teachers are struggling to cope with the demands placed on them, parents feel they are being ignored and pupils are not getting the education they deserve. Margaret Thomson, moving a motion on this topic, called on EIS Council to campaign against any cuts to ASN budgets and queried, “How can we continue to support more ASN pupils with no resources?” In moving the motion, Thomson therefore called for a more robust mechanism for identifying and assessing ASN, more opportunities for career development to allow teachers to better cope with the diverse needs of pupils, and more funding. Sarah Gallacher, seconding the motion, argued “We need more cash. We cannot have inclusion on the cheap.”
Other motions debated at AGM included support for the “Change the Tune” campaign (which aims to promote and protect music education in Scotland’s schools); a motion in support of college lecturers in their efforts to make national bargaining work, and a motion in solidarity with Palestinians (calling on the EIS to “Support TUC policy to boycott the goods of companies who profit from illegal settlements, the Occupation and the construction of the Wall”) which was carried without opposition.
Aamer Anwar, a leading human rights lawyer and the current Rector at the University of Glasgow, gave a very powerful keynote speech on combating racism, fascism and the hard right, for which he received a standing ovation. He rightly described teaching as “a profession of hope” and as “essential in the fight against hate and despair.”
The AGM overall was one of the best in recent years in terms of having good motions on a range of issues, a high level of discussion and debate among delegates, and a growing sense of the union as a member-led and combative force – capable of challenging employers and winning. Many delegates, myself included, left Perth feeling energised and enthused for the battles that lie ahead. Heaven knows, the EIS members that work in Further and Higher Education will need some geeing-up – particularly considering that the EIS-ULA (members that work in HE) have thus far been unable to meet the anti-trade union thresholds for voter turnout when balloting over fair and equal pay (as did their counterparts in the UCU). It will be the job of socialists in the EIS, and beyond, to try and generalise the combative mood of delegates in Perth and to embed this further in our union and beyond.