Hugh Reilly: Kudos to Mike Russell for EIS show

Mike Russell anticipates 'a very positive discussion' despite 'disagreements' with EIS members at Saturday's conference in Perth. Picture: Jane Barlow
Mike Russell anticipates 'a very positive discussion' despite 'disagreements' with EIS members at Saturday's conference in Perth. Picture: Jane Barlow
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Not since trembling Christians entered the Coliseum praying that gastric band operations on the pride of obese, over-fed lions had been a wonderful success has any individual shown more bravery than Mike Russell.

According to reports, the education secretary will make a guest appearance at this year’s EIS conference, akin to that of John the Baptist’s top-of-the bill turn at Herod’s feast, a hard act to follow after Salome’s salacious wiggling.

Larry Flanagan, EIS general-secretary and Lew Grade-style promoter of the event, believes Russell will be afforded an “appropriate hearing”, an ambiguous statement that makes Tony Blair seem something of a straight-shooter.

While I don’t fear for his life, I think Russell will be as well received as Mike and Bernie Winters, that quintessentially unfunny English comedy duo, were at Glasgow’s Empire theatre many moons ago. It was their misfortune that the audience comprised of inebriated shipyard workers who expressed their discontent in the time honoured tradition of throwing rivets at the ducking and diving comedians. In my opinion, it would be prudent of Russell to be on the lookout for rubbers and rulers being lobbed in his direction.

Mr Russell has acquiesced to the demand that he answer questions from the floor. Master of the understatement, Mr Flanagan says that the minister will be asked “hard questions”.Given the ire of dominies over workload issues associated with the Curriculum for Excellence, I think the interrogation will make Gordon Brewer’s interviewing style seem like one of Parkie’s obsequious conversations with Billy Connolly; indeed, switching off the lights and swinging a glowing light bulb above Russell’s head could only add to the ambience in the hall.

I trust that the moderator of the Q&A session will allow queries from a broad range of delegates and not the usual suspects. As a survivor of three EIS conferences, the memories of witnessing the same lefties stampeding towards the lectern to speak in favour of resolutions or amendments still haunt me. Ever disciplined, the comrades would stand in line impatiently at the apron of the stage, like an Urquhart tour busload of bladder-troubled pensioners making an emergency pit-stop at a motorway service station. As an aficionado of 1970s Marxist politics, I found it comedy gold. I recall a less than useful idiot demanding the EIS refuse to take an ad out in the Sun due to that tabloid being owned by the devil incarnate, Rupert Murdoch. Fired up by the Stalinist’s demagoguery, conference voted in favour of the resolution before popping off to local bars to watch Sky TV and read the Sunday Times.

In the quiet moments in his dressing room before he delivers his oration, I wonder what thoughts will go through the mind of the minister? Just last year, the outgoing president of the EIS, Alan Munro, described him as being “sinister” and “threatening”. I’m not usually someone to give advice, but perhaps Russell should consider taking to the podium, pausing a minute or two, then, in his best Robert Di Nero impression, saying: “You lookin’ at me? I don’t see anyone else here. You gotta be lookin’ at me!” This would bring the house down on a par with Samson’s farewell gig in Gaza.

In what I can only describe as a case of foolhardy optimism, the education secretary believes it will be a “positive discussion”. Teachers are seriously unhappy. In March, 90 per cent of those who participated in an EIS ballot voted for industrial action over changes to the pension scheme that will see teachers contribute more to the pot. The union claims that members have been “betrayed”, a betrayal some chalkies deem greater than that of a flamboyant Judas who caused outrage in the homophobic Holy Land when he gave a perplexed Jesus an insincere peck (rumours that Christ turned the other cheek were stonewalled by scribes).

It’s easy to think of Russell’s entrance at the Perth conference to be similar to that of Daniel dropping in to the lions’ den for an awkward chat. He has, after all, been a thorn in the side of teachers, remaining steadfast in his desire to fully implement the new curriculum come what may. I prefer to perceive him as an Androcles, taking the sting out of the ferocious EIS beast. In my view, the minster is to be commended. We live in age when – as per advice from PR gurus – politicians give difficult situations balletic body swerves. I hope gladiatorial Russell gets the thumbs up from the teaching mob.