Speech by Shelagh Hirst, ATL president, Annual Conference in Liverpool 2017

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Press release
11 April 2017 by ATL Media Office
Shelagh Hirst spoke during the third session of Conference on Tuesday 11 April.


Conference, Colleagues and Friends

It is an honour and privilege to be your President in what has turned out to be such an historic year for ATL.

Little did I know that when I stood to become President that we would have come so far on this journey to establish, with the NUT, a new union – the National Education Union.

I remember sitting out there, as the Vice President elect at our Conference in 2015, when we discussed continuing our talks and negotiations with the NUT. At that time I thought it would take longer to get to where we are now.

That it only took two years should come as no surprise considering successive Governments’ continued drive to have central control over the state-funded education system including aspects of the curriculum, assessment and accountability, governance structures and even deciding who should run individual academies.

Over many years attending Conference, during debate it become clear that despite our professional knowledge, skills and understanding of our students’ needs, we felt that our views, concerns and fears were not listened to by successive Governments and counted for nothing as they went as far as dictating how reading and maths should be taught, amongst many other things.

The election result that followed Conference in 2015 meant even more changes were relentlessly instigated, for example attempts at forced academisation, potential loss of qualified teacher status, tougher SATs, new grade boundaries for GCSEs, introduction of the new apprenticeships policies and levy, and not forgetting yet another Ofsted framework.

I could go on, but you have lived through all that and still our professional voice was often ignored, although on occasion we did get to say – “well we told you so” or “we did try to warn you about that”. Although more recently there are indications that the current Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is beginning to listen as a few post-election initiatives have been quietly dropped, but can we rely on her remaining in post long-term to develop the necessary relationships with the profession.

One of the greatest privileges and joys of being elected President is the opportunity to meet members at conferences, training events, regional or branch meetings, or in schools all over the UK.

I know from listening to you and other ATL members that you have a tangible commitment and enthusiasm to do your best for your students. After all, no one comes into the profession if they do not like children and do not want the best for them!

I know that you care for your students’ health and well-being as well as their learning and development, and have great concerns over their mental health in a high-stakes testing regime and a narrowed curriculum.

I know that you would rather work collaboratively with other professionals to learn and develop your own knowledge and practice rather than be in competition with them.

I know that you are constantly reflecting on your practice and hold yourself to a higher account than anything that can be imposed upon you.

However, when meeting members during my Vice-Presidential year I realised that so many aspects of our current education system left our profession demoralised, disillusioned and desperate for something to change before they were driven out.

Driven out by a by a lack of work/life balance arising from the long hours’ culture that caused ‘burn out’ or threat of ‘burn out’.

Members finding that, in attempting to maintain a work/life balance, they are not able to sustain the level of energy and motivation needed to continue in the profession.

Members finding their health impacted – physically and mentally - with sleepless nights, exhaustion, the constant feeling that they should be doing more and that no matter how hard they work, whatever they do, it is not good enough. They are under constant scrutiny, from Ofsted and appraisal systems, with the threat of capability measures sometimes after only one less than perfect lesson observation.

I remember vividly a young primary teacher I met a year ago, who felt that he should be able to have the best work/life balance in his school, as he has no family or relationship commitments. But he was at breaking point and commented that “something has got to give”. I suspect he was worried that it might be his health rather than his workload.

As a profession, we try to do all that we can for our students’ health and well-being in our highly-pressurised education system, but too often that is at a personal cost to our own work/life balance, health and personal happiness.

As I started my presidential year I sensed the feeling of hopelessness and deep unhappiness creeping into our profession due to an education system that is unworkable.

So, Conference, it should come as no surprise that my chosen presidential themes are Hope, Health and Happiness - all aspects of the lives of education professionals and students that are being severely affected by the current toxic education system and constant changes of Government policy.

Now, some of you may not believe this, although others here will remember, there was a time when Government had a ‘hands off’ policy of political non-intervention in schools allowing control of education purpose and standards to be at an individual school level with only local education authorities having oversight along with HMIs.

However, that began to change when the education service was described as a ‘secret garden’ only understood by the profession and a mystery to anyone else including parents, politicians, industry and the public, with no real scrutiny and accountability.

Then, just over 40 years ago, there came a turning point when a speech made by the then Prime Minister, James Callaghan, set out the need for change in the world of education.

However, even though change was needed, over those 40 years it has swung completely the other way where now only the Government is in total control. So now we have another ‘education garden’, one where we have a political free-for-all with so many gardeners not having a clue how to nurture and care for the seedlings!

It just so happens that I was training as a teacher when Callaghan made his speech.

So, I do remember a time, very early in my career, when I was treated as a trusted and respected professional with a degree of autonomy to do what worked best for the children in my class within the context of the whole school’s aspirations. Not working in isolation but as part of a team where professional experience, both successes and difficulties, were shared and celebrated or solved.

I loved it, and my hope of making a difference to a child’s life, academically, socially and emotionally through education was always realised.

The majority of my career was spent working in Halifax, part of the Metropolitan Borough of Calderdale.

Now Calderdale and Halifax are famous for a number of things, including a building society, the first children’s museum in the UK, Quality Street, the inventor of cats’ eyes, Percy Shaw, and more recently TV shows Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley.

Then, of course, there is the saying "From Hull, Hell and Halifax, Good Lord deliver us!"

But, what is little known, is that Calderdale has had four Nobel prize winners between 1951 and 2007. Not bad for an area with a current population of two hundred thousand. That is more winners than many countries including Luxemburg, Iceland, Portugal and Brazil.

Interestingly, the prizes were all science related and two of the laureates, a chemist and physicist, even went to the same school and, despite an age difference of 24 years, they were taught by the same physics teacher, Luke Sutcliffe. It is rumoured locally that both of these laureates credited that teacher with initiating their love of science.

I often wonder if he, or any other of their teachers, ever knew of their former pupils’ achievement.

In fact, how often do any of us know of the achievements, in the long-term, of our own students and what impact we made on them

In my own experience we rarely find out, but colleagues - never underestimate the effect you can have on the students you have worked with or who you will work with. You are the most effective, reliable resource that they have.

The part each and every one of you has played in opening or unlocking the potential of those students has been crucial. As I heard someone recently comment - it is our work in the present that invests in the future lives of our students without us even knowing what that future might look like. 

ATL’s past rests on the shoulders of many members who all played their part in shaping what ATL became and sowed the seeds for professional unity over many years.

Where ATL is at present rests on the shoulders of today’s members, who ensured that the previous investment in ATL’s future came to fruition. I wonder how many of those past ATL members are around to see just how far ATL has come – on the brink of new era of education trade unionism.

The immediate future for the National Education Union also rests on our current members’ shoulders, along with those from the NUT.

So, let’s start now, how we mean to go on.

Conference, regardless of how you or other members voted in the recent ballot let’s make sure that we all work together, to ensure the smooth transition of ATL and NUT as we come together as one to be the National Education Union.

A union that is a force to be reckoned with, one that is strong, dynamic and robust which Government cannot simply ignore or refuse to engage with.

A union that gets itself organised, not afraid to let the Government know enough is enough when they introduce policies that are unworkable – we can’t just keep on saying “we told you so” when they get things so horribly wrong.

A union that will fight to protect our profession, for the sake of the children and young people whose education depends on us.

A union that has the credibility, integrity and conviction, to speak out loud and clear on the continuing issues around workload, funding, baseline and primary assessment, recruitment and retention, apprenticeships, free schools and academisation that we still face as well as those issues we may face in the future.

A union that has belief in itself, one that is confident that our professional knowledge, discernment and expertise is key to ensuring the education system of the future is really fit for purpose and one that is a joy to work and learn in.

A union that is prepared to work collaboratively and productively with other educational stakeholders, including Government, to instigate change, formulate new education policies and purpose. 

A union where education professionals have hope, hope that drives us to achieve our professional dreams and aspirations for the future shape of education.

However, the long-term future of the National Education Union rests on the shoulders of those who will come after us, but it is us that will need to put the work in now and invest in that future. It is us that need to ensure there is a firm foundation for that future to be built on.

Mary commented to me when the result of the ballot came in “we are going ahead with our big adventure!”

Conference, I urge you and all ATL members to get involved now in this exciting ‘big adventure’ and build the foundations of the National Education Union, the union that will surely change the withering ‘educational garden’ of today into one that flourishes.


Note to editors:

  • The Association of Teachers and Lecturers’ Annual Conference will be held at ACC in Liverpool from Monday 10 until Wednesday 12 April 2017.
  • ATL is an independent, registered trade union and professional association, representing approximately 170,000 teachers, headteachers, lecturers and support staff in maintained and independent nurseries, schools, sixth form, tertiary and further education colleges in the United Kingdom.
  • ATL exists to help members, as their careers develop, through first rate research, advice, information and legal advice, and to work with government and employers to defend its members’ pay, conditions and career development.
  • ATL is affiliated to the Trades Union Congress (TUC), European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE) and Education International (EI). ATL is not affiliated to any political party and seeks to work constructively with all the main political parties.
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