24th September 2018
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“My dad does typing, I think. He’s a general secretary.”

Shetlander Ronnie Smith has announced his retirement as Scotland’s head of all teachers, the General Secretary of the union the Education Institute of Scotland. Chris Cope visited him in Edinburgh.

Ronnie Smith is retiring next year. In March, to be precise. He wants to buy a boat to go fishing in; rather unremarkable retirement stuff, to be fair, if you’re a fan of the sea. Smith, however, hasn’t gone through an unremarkable career to reach this grand milestone. He has been the General Secretary at the Educational Institute of Scotland, the largest education union in the country, since 1995. He is, in all respects, a pillar of the Scottish teaching community, the voice of some 60,000 teachers. Oh, and he somehow has enough time to nip to Brussels every now and again as the President of the Europe region of the global trade union Education International.

And he’s originally from Shetland, too. The 60-year-old began his life in Lerwick, navigating the islands’ education system before joining the teaching trade in West Lothian, tasked with educating the children of Broxburn in the wonders of Latin.

I meet him in his office, an expansive lair in a cosy Edinburgh enclave, just days after he announced his retirement. His office is so big it makes his desk looks like a lonely island, bobbing in the middle. There are pictures of another island, Foula, perched on a mantelpiece. They are mainly of waves crashing against forlorn sea stacks;  Smith, by contrast, seems incredibly calm, genteel and measured.

Naturally, we begin speaking about Shetland. Smith has not lived there since he left for university, but he visits regularly. It is clear it evokes something in his heart; he is, however, more than happy to denounce the Isles’ winter weather – the ‘dark days and horizontal rain’ – suggesting that he isn’t always victim of those rose tinted glasses.

“The big thing that I got from Shetland was a really solid education,” he says, perhaps unsurprisingly, when I ask him how Shetland geared him up for his life ahead.   “I was one of those lucky people, in a sense, that passed the qualifying exam. There was senior secondary and junior secondary, and you sat what you called the control exam, which determined whether you were judged bright enough to do an academic course. The system was really good for people who were judged suitable for an academic career, so you got a really good education, which stood me in good stead. I kind of cut my political teeth as a teenager campaigning on behalf of candidates for Lerwick Town Council as it was in those days, but the move into full time trade unionism just grew out of my work and what I saw going on at work.

“When I started teaching in 1973 I clung on by my fingernails at the end of my first year, because the salaries were really desperate – they really were desperately poor. There was a huge unrest in teaching at the time, which led to a committee of inquiry into teachers’ pay, chaired by a chap called Lord Houghton, and it awarded a whole lot of back pay to people. People still talk with fondness of the Houghton washing machine or whatever they bought with the proceeds of all this catch up money. When I entered teaching, it was a time of quite a high atmosphere around pay, and that was really the start.”

Shetland’s education system is known for its large spend per pupil, perhaps skewed by lowly-attended, outlying schools, but its small class sizes and high level of teacher pupil interaction is something hugely desirable for city schools. I ask Smith what he makes of the current state of the Isles’ education system, before he reveals an intriguing family connection. “I have to be careful what I say here, because my father was for many years the convenor of the education committee in Shetland,” he smiles,  “so if I was attacking the education system I would be attacking his tenure. But I do think that generally, the standard of provision in Shetland has been pretty high – whether it will survive the whole raft of council cuts that are coming down the tracks is the really big question. But I think youngsters in Shetland benefit from something we’d like to see nationally, and that is generally quite small class levels and a high level of pupil to teacher ratio, where there is a lot of individual attention and interaction. One of the great things I think, and it’s happened since I lived there, is the engagement with the rest of the world – the Global Classroom work, which I think is tremendously important in an island community.”

Indeed, teaching runs in the Smith family veins, it seems. Both of his father’s brothers were teachers in Shetland, and his wife, a retired teacher – well, they met at a union meeting, of course. Oh, and his daughter might branch out into education soon, too. “I have two children,” he says, when I enquire about his own family, in his soft, tranquil voice – but like any great teacher, it’s a voice that could probably turn stern in seconds, if needs be. “I have a daughter who is an archivist in Sheffield, but she is contemplating training as a teacher. And I have a son, who I think will never go near teaching – he is a civil engineer. Both children have gone in very different directions from me, but my wife is a retired home economics teacher.

“We met at a union meeting, not very romantic – we were complaining like fury about salaries.”

With their children having such an important figure in Scottish education as their father, I wonder if they ever received special attention in school. “I think they generally avoided letting it be known what we did,” he replies. “I have a favourite anecdote about my daughter when she was in primary school. They were asking what their parents did, and she said ‘I think my dad does typing or something, because he’s a General Secretary’”.

Smith became the top dog at the EIS back in 1995, but it wasn’t a flash appointment. He has been involved at the organisation – which, having formed in 1847, is the oldest teachers’ union in the world – for a number of years prior, both in voluntary work and also as Assistant Secretary from 1988 after he left teaching. “I think the biggest concrete thing was the McCrone agreement,” he says, when I ask him for his biggest achievement as General Secretary. “That was struck in 2001 and that brought 10 years of stability and peace and a much more positive atmosphere in schools. In terms of outcomes, that’s the big one. I was centrally involved in that negotiation – it went on right through the Christmas holidays and New Year and was a fairly fierce time. But it was a very important negotiation because in the run up to McCrone, the whole atmosphere in schools had become really very bad. Things had become very tense, and if we hadn’t reached that agreement in 2001 then I think we’d have been into a period of hard industrial action, like we had in mid 1980s, so I think it was an agreement that was not only good in itself, but actually its impact was far greater than most appreciate – you can only imagine what it would have been like without it.

“In terms of achievements, the only other thing is that when I started, I hoped that when I came to leave, the membership numbers would be strong and that the EIS would be in good shape. And I think it is. We’re sitting at around 60,000 members – that’s 80% of the teaching force.” After playing such an important role in a landmark ruling, and Scottish education in general, I asked Smith if he is a bit of a hero within the teaching community, but his modesty instantly swats away such praise.

Trade unionism and strikes are somewhat of a hot topic of course, with a national strike over public sector pensions taking place a week before I meet Smith. Only 30 of 2700 Scottish local authority controlled schools were open during the day, highlighting a huge support for the cause from teachers across Scotland. “It was a very successful day and it was the first time we’ve done it nationally as a union since 1986. It wasn’t something that very many members did very easily, not just because they lose salary and so on, but also in terms of the impact on youngsters and the service that they provide. So it’s not something that they relish doing. But I think when you look at the response in the ballot, where 82% of the EIS voters said yes to a strike, and when you look at the reach of the strike across the whole of the public sector, I think that it sounds a fairly powerful message of the strength of feeling and justification for it.”

I bring up the counter argument; what does he say to people who think teaching strikes put the children last? “There are at least two things you can say,” he replies, in a steadfast way that makes you think he’s been posed this question many times before. “Kids in Scotland will have lost one day because of a strike this year; they lost rather more days last year because snow fell from the skies. It hasn’t caused a complete educational crash. That’s maybe a slightly flippant point, but you do need to put it into context. The second thing is that there is nothing more important for the success of education than having a good supply of well qualified teachers, and there is a real danger that when the economy picks up, as it surely will sometime, and when the job market is a whole lot better, if you have destroyed the pension provision of teachers, the risk is that you don’t succeed in enticing good graduates to become teachers.”

One question has been itching my lips all day. It needs to be scratched. Will he think about returning to Shetland on a permanent basis once he retires? “I have to be careful how I answer that one, in case the wife doesn’t know!” he jokes, I hope. “I’ll certainly spend more time in Shetland. All my family are there, I’ve still got most of my roots there. I have a place in Foula, which I go to pretty much every summer. I’ve also acquired what was my grandparents house in Burra, so I do intend to spend a whole lot more time there. I quite fancy being able to raise peats more at leisure than I do at the moment – we usually have a week frantically trying to dry them. And I have this romantic notion of owning a boat to be able to fishing in, which I haven’t done in God knows how many years.”

The feeling is that Smith is content living on the mainland. He’s a well travelled man – he’s whisking himself off to Belgium after this interview to work at Education International – so it’s fair to say that periodic plane trips up to Sumburgh won’t exactly be a taxing experience. “I’ll spend more time in Shetland,” he says, “But whether it becomes my permanent place of residence, it’s less likely, let’s put it that way. I’ll dot about back and forth, probably be a bit of a nomad, sometimes here, sometimes there.”

What is in no doubt, however, is the reach of Smith’s legacy when retirement comes knocking in March. Its long arm extends far beyond Shetland, through countless Scottish teachers, lecturers and schools, and beyond, across the globe. I end up by asking if he has any advice for his successor at the EIS. “You’ve got to be very respectful of the organisation and the people who make it what it is,” he says. “I think it’s important to realise that you only get one shot at this. You’ve got the baton in your hand for a wee while, and it’s very important that you pass it safely over to whoever comes after you and what you bequeath to them is at least as good as what you inherited when you took it up.”