EDUCATION secretary Mike Russell will this week become the first politician to address the annual conference of Scotland’s largest teaching union, Scotland on Sunday can reveal.
Russell has accepted an invitation to speak at the 167th annual meeting of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) in Perth on Saturday, where he can expect to face growing anger from delegates over pensions, workload and the country’s fledgling school curriculum.
The minister will also take questions from teachers.
The invitation follows a speech by the union’s general secretary, Larry Flanagan, at least year’s AGM in which he accused the minister of “hiding behind the coat-tails of some Eton toffs” by failing to find a Scottish solution to Westminster’s proposed changes to teachers’ pensions.
Yesterday Russell said: “I’m very much looking forward to it. My father was a member of the EIS, and I’m very conscious of the honour. I’m looking forward to speaking, but also listening. I speak to the EIS regularly and we have a good relationship. There is a very different atmosphere to down south and a very different set of policies.
“Of course there will always be disagreements, but I expect we will have a very positive discussion and that’s what I’m looking forward to.”
In March, more than 90 per cent of those taking part in an EIS ballot voted for industrial action in response to pension changes that will increase the amount teachers are required to contribute to their scheme.
The union, which represents 80 per cent of Scotland’s teachers, said members felt “betrayed” by the changes, which they argue will lead to a real terms cut in pay.
The result of the ballot followed a decision by the Scottish Parliament’s education committee to back Westminster pension reforms.
The union has still to hold a second formal ballot needed before teachers go on strike, after which a date would be set for the action.
This year’s AGM also comes amid complaints that many teachers are struggling under the workload that goes with the new curriculum.
“This year, the idea was raised that we invite the cabinet secretary. The traditional view was that the AGM was for EIS members and we deliberately did not invite any politicians,” said Flanagan.
“We just decided to give it a try this year, subject to him agreeing to field questions from the delegates, and see how it goes. I would expect him to get an appropriate hearing. It will be respectful, but people will be asking him hard questions.
“There are a number of issues to be discussed, but workload is certainly a big issue this year.”
Last month when England’s education secretary Michael Gove addressed members of the National Association of Head Teachers in Birmingham last month, he was heckled and jeered by delegates.
The union, which does not act in Scotland, passed a no confidence motion in his policies, while president Bernadette Hunter said teachers and pupils had “never had it so bad”.
But John Dennis, EIS local association secretary for Dumfries, said Russell was unlikely to be given as hostile a reception by delegates in Perth.
“It’s an interesting new experiment – we’ll see how it works out; a lot will depend on how we responds to the questions he is asked,” he said.
Asked if delegates would refrain from the heckling which has been seen at English teachers’ conferences, he said: “I’m sure that will be the case. I don’t think it will be like in England where even the headteachers heckled Gove. We don’t have a Tory government pushing absolutely horrible policies like academies.”
Last year, the outgoing president of the EIS used the AGM to accusing the education secretary of being “sinister” and “threatening”.
Making his final speech, Alan Munro said Russell had only “grudgingly” listened to the concerns of teachers over the introduction of the new National Qualifications, which many in the profession wanted to see delayed for a year.
Munro warned of a period of “industrial strife” to come if more was not done to address teachers’ concerns over changes to their pensions and cuts being made by local councils.
Earlier this month, a poll by another teaching union, the NASUWT, found more than half of teachers had considered quitting in the past year due to “plummeting” levels of job satisfaction and rising stress levels.