Making sure ‘education, education, education’ still means ‘education, education, education’

Larry Flanagan lifts the lid on how the EIS is defending teacher, lecturers and education

As a Scottish education union, the EIS operates in a relatively unique situation given that education is a wholly devolved area for the Scottish Parliament, with New Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff (New JNCHES) being the only UK-wide negotiations with which we are engaged. Notably, in that context, we have secured significant pay deals for members in both school and colleges, with the Scottish Government being involved either directly or indirectly in those negotiations. In these negotiations, teachers were taken to the brink of strike action while lecturers had to engage in protracted striking.

Although our university lecturers (in our university lecturers’ association, EIS-ULA) have also taken strike action, the simple fact is that the British context is more challenging given the succour which employers draw from the indifference, at best, of a Tory Government.

Unions operating in Scotland enjoy a significantly more positive environment as a result of devolution and, also, from the predisposition of the SNP-led Scottish Government to work in social partnership with the union movement. Some individuals, viewing life though party political perspectives, find it difficult to acknowledge that reality but as a non-affiliated union, the EIS, frankly, seeks to exploit every opportunity offered to us by that circumstance.

That does not mean failing to challenge the Scottish Government when required and our record on that, be it around pay or on matters of education policy, will survive any level of scrutiny. The teachers’ pay deal was realised only when the Scottish Government was convinced that the EIS could and would deliver threshold-breaking strike ballot results.

There are limits to the advantages potentially offered by the devolved scenario, however, and the actions of the Westminster Government on pensions is a prime example. No amount of discussion with the Scottish Government can resolve the pension injustices which the Tories have ushered in because, ultimately, the Treasury makes the rules! The only glimmer of hope since the ignominious retreat from the public sector pension strike peak of 2011 is offered by the recent success of the FBU in the courts.

Westminster budget decisions also create significant limitations to the money available to the Scottish Parliament. Recent new fund-raising powers to the Parliament have sharpened the debate a little but UK decisions are still significant, not least in terms of the debate about the levels of funding available to local authorities.

So, where does that leave us, looking ahead to the next few years? On pay, firstly, for the EIS and for most public sector unions, multi-year settlements mean that 2021 is likely to be the next big pay round. Our strategy has yet to be finalised but, in common with the message which the STUC has been giving to Scottish Government, there is an absolute need to continue on a path of restoration with regard to the austerity-driven pay cuts of the past decade.

Previously, the EIS has moved resolutions at both STUC and TUC congresses calling for public sector union unity and joint campaigning, including potentially coordinating industrial action, on pay claims. The run-up to the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections might seem like an opportune time to re-examine options around such an approach. The EIS would be keen to explore support for this from other unions.

On policy issues, we are in the middle of a workload campaign where we have advanced a 20/20 claim (class size maxima of 20 and class contact maxima of 20 hours), which is resonating with a membership still feeling empowered from the pay campaign. Even in a sector with a high union density, the EIS grew its membership significantly through its recent campaigning work and through utilising an organising approach to member engagement. We’re in a stronger position now to tackle workload.

We are also engaging with political parties ahead of them drawing up their 2021 manifestos. Education has become a party-political football, which might be regarded as inevitable given its prominence in public life, but for practitioners, that can have a negative outcome. Too easily, an attempt to criticise the Scottish Government’s handling of education is founded on a ‘narrative of failure’ which is a complete disservice to everyone working in or being served by our education system.

Certainly, there are legitimate areas of criticism – poor levels of support for pupils with additional support needs might jump out as one – but, on balance, we have a strong comprehensive education system which is focussed on the right issues in a way it never was before.

A significant EIS priority over the next period will be looking ahead to the 2021 Scottish elections and trying to ensure that political party manifestos are focussed on the critical education issues. It’s hugely disappointing for unions to be facing a further period of a hostile Tory Government, but we’ve had to face that for most of our history so we should know how to do it – solidarity and unity.

Larry Flanagan is the general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS).