Teacher Wellbeing

I must say at the outset that the #teacher5adaySlowChat idea is a great one. I am honoured to have been asked to chip in with some thoughts on teacher wellbeing.

In this post I hope to spell out concerns I have before suggesting some things that we can do about them, and the challenges that we face in doing so. In this I hope I will find and indeed build common cause with teachers everywhere.

I write this and, no doubt you read this:

not as a journalist nor as a politician

not as a councillor nor as a governor

not as a pundit nor as a consultant

not as an economist nor as a government minister

I speak in the role that we do have – the role that matters most in education and in society…a teacher.

Before there was any such thing as a journalist or a politician…there were teachers.

Before there was any such thing as a councillor or a governor…there were teachers.

Before there was any such thing as a pundit or a consultant…there were teachers.

Before there was any such thing as an economist or a government minister…there were teachers.

And after all those who pontificate have passed from the education scene…there will still be teachers.

“There is no higher calling. Without teachers society would slide back into primitive squalor.” So said the late Ted Wragg.

But how are we teachers, so central to society’s success regarded? How are we treated? How are we supported?

If you are naive enough to believe the pundits and the politicians, then we’re treated quite well. Indeed, the ‘Get Into Teaching’ website preaches that as a “valued professional” you can look forward to:

Job satisfaction, “competitive salary, generous pension”.

It goes on to tell about long holidays in which you can: “pursue your interests, travel and spend time with family and friends.”

Not for them the lower life expectancy that has seen several of my former colleagues die just after retirement.

Not for them the tension and stress brought on by the challenge of behaviour management, increasing workload and poor relationships.

Not for them the conclusion of Mike Finlayson the then Head of Teacher Support Scotland nearly a decade ago that: “The [teaching] profession is approaching a collective nervous breakdown.”

A collective nervous breakdown.

Is that the reward?

The recognition?

For us valued professionals?

Research into teachers’ health and well being shows that the problems of stress-related illness are not recognised, far less looked for and even less still, adequately dealt with.

The now defunct Teacher Support Scotland reported half of teachers finding their jobs very or extremely stressful; nine out of ten believing that the situation had got worse.

More than three quarters of teachers believed that the psychological stress at work had had a knock on effect on their physical well-being. With cases of mental health problems and depression especially bad in male teachers – and higher than amongst health workers.

They also pointed to the link between teacher length of service and burn out, and that with an ageing profession it could only get worse.

In short, we are not just a caring profession. We are a profession in need of care.

But what of the support for teachers given by those who have a duty of care? Employers think that levels of support are adequate yet in reality they are not. Few teachers are aware of employer support mechanisms, indeed they are only used by less than two percent.

Teachers are more likely to suffer from occupational health problems than health workers yet have less occupational health support.

There is a gap between the rhetoric of the pundits and reality of the professionals. It is a gap that leaves teachers stressed not supported with employers who have a duty of care taking a license to ignore. We run the danger of seeing not a profession at ease with itself but a profession on its knees.

My starting point is: ‘teacher working conditions are pupil learning conditions’. How staff in schools are treated impacts upon the pupils in their care. This is not as simple as paying teachers more to ensure improved attainment or achievement. It is about the specific cultures that exist within a school and the prevailing culture within society as to how the teaching profession is valued.

It is my contention that schools as institutions are simply rubbish at looking after the wellbeing of staff. In fact, if we failed our pupils in the same way in which we so badly fail those who work on their behalf, there would be a national scandal.

It is my further contention that schools rely on the fact that they are so bad at staff wellbeing and that consequently, any real attempt to solve the problem may be doomed to fail.

In Radio Scotland’s 1980s ‘Only An Excuse’ mockumentary, they parodied the late James Sanderson. (He was a Saturday night radio phone-in pundit who would ask callers: ‘were you at the game?). They had him criticise a fan who couldn’t get to the game (because it was his wife’s funeral) by asking ‘how long can that take, surely you could have made it along for the second half?’

What was the stuff of 80s satire is now the reality of 21st century attendance management policies. These target maximum staff attendance at work through little other than bullying them into turning up to work regardless of the state of their health.

In schools there is much more we are doing but still need to do to support those pupils who have carer responsibilities at home. We massage deadlines for them, provide additional help or resources to prevent gaps in their learning from developing into chasms.

Yet, when was the last time in your school, a teacher was permitted to complete a bureaucratic task after the imposed deadline due to family commitments or a sick child say? Does our desire to help carers in school stop when they are the teachers? All-too-often it seems to.

Even the normal running of a school is based upon a whole series of lies.

In Scotland, a full-time teacher has a contract that states that they are employed for 35 hours per week. For this work they are paid the appropriate salary for their post. Strangely, the only part of the bargain that is kept is the salary paid. Indeed from both parties, employee and employer there seems little expectation that the other part will be kept.

Each local authority-run Scottish school annually creates a ‘Working Time Agreement’ that pools together all of the available time for all of the work to be done. All of it. Every. Single. Second. Yet, again, nobody sticks to it.

In both the basic contractual relationship and the WTA people are often heard to say things like: ‘Oh, I could never do all of my work in a 35 hours week.”

Worse still, there are some who expect that people will simply ignore any working time commitments. These folk are the workaholic types who can be found bragging about how late they were up working or how many hours they spent doing something.

To them I say this: Good for you! If you choose to give free overtime to your employer, I am sure they are happy. However, don’t expect this of anyone else. Further do not even dare try to brow beat others into giving similar donations.

Such folks are the ones who label others as clock watchers, yet without a trace of irony also talk about having to balance budgets? Labour is a factor of production. A price is paid for it on the basis of an exchange. Both the time given and the price paid for it are fixed. Which part of this needs to be explained further?

Oh, I forgot: the morality of the work of teachers as providers of a service. This makes acquiescence all the easier.

It is all of these pressures that serve too often as barriers to teachers taking ownership over their own well-being.

Yet there is hope. Some local authorities are paying attention to the problems of teacher stress. They see that teacher well-being is fundamental to excellence in education.

There are numerous examples of work based schemes that have the support of teachers because they give support to teachers. More work is being done to speak to teachers about stressors and in making commitments to tackling them.

But more has to change than simply rediscovering the problem or providing a helpline. And it must be done by all who have a duty of care for teachers – working together with teachers.

The culture in our schools must change. Support must be available, reliable and confidential. School managers must be equipped with the skills to create that culture and respond to individual need.

Stress affects us all in our job at different times and in different ways. More must be done to create and then individualise appropriate mechanisms that offer teachers support and coping strategies.

Best practice must be identified and shared.

Fundamentally, the main causes of stress: behaviour management, too much admin and poor relationships must be minimised if not eradicated.

We cannot solve the problem of teacher stress by giving teachers coping strategies and doing nothing about its causes.

Teachers are already doing an excellent job – but even more could be achieved if teachers were given the support to do so.

If we wish to have the best possible learning experience for pupils then we must have the best working conditions for teachers. Central to that is the well-being of teachers.

However, at a time of cuts and with more cuts to come, how much hope is there that things will get better?

The communities which we serve are seeing the closure of the very facilities that help them to be sustainable.

All-too-often it is teachers who step in to fill the void when other services cannot.

But, who will step in to help us?

We may have to count on each other even more than before.

Ted Wragg was right, there is no higher calling than teaching.

We achieve so much and can achieve so much more.

The challenge to our employers, to our colleagues and to ourselves is to work to create the conditions to do so.

This challenge is growing but it is one that we have to meet.

For the sake of our pupils – and ourselves.

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What’s in a Name?

All throughout my life it seems I have had to fight a battle to get people to denote my surname correctly. Often the obvious mistake is to make me a Mc and not a Mac. Thereafter the error is often to give me a second capital M, where there is none.

 

As a teacher I have had a variety of mis-spellings over the years and many of these baffle me with their randomness.

 

In addition to these, nowadays many folks now call me Rob. This is due to my twitter handle (@robfmac) and maybe also because I tend not to correct people when they do so. Perhaps this is due to the weariness I suffer from as a result of the battles over my surname, or maybe I secretly want people to drop the ‘ert’.

 

I fear that my wife and I may have set up our elder daughter for such battles as she has an easily mistaken first name and even has an ë at the end of her middle name too. It must be said that this resulted in the registrar having to get a user guide out to their PC when I was registering the birth.

 

Final thought: many people change their name by deed poll and often women change their name upon getting married – if you could change your name, what would you change it to?

A Tale of Two Weeks

Part 1: An Inspector Calls – or rather just texts.

Our school was inspected in the week beginning 28 September. We expected it and it had been preceded by a whole range of activities designed to tighten up our processes and practices, as well as the decor.

It struck me though; just how much of what we do is re-engineered to fit in with the apparent desires of the Inspectors? What happened to making things fit local needs and resources?

I wonder about the improvements that we made in the lead up to the inspection. Did they not serve to say to the pupils that they mattered less than our visitors?

I accept that the prospect of an inspection gets those things done that you had been planning but had not quite gotten around to doing. I wonder if it highlights that there are too many demands upon teachers and schools to get things done that are not directly beneficial to what we do?

My own experience of the inspection was minimal. I enjoyed only a brief conversation in the corridor with the team leader.  I had an observation of an S1 class and was in a focus group on our school’s excellent work on Employability and, that was it.

This was a huge contrast with the last inspection. Indeed, maybe it was my experience of the previous inspection that protected me from excessive advanced fear of this one…

It felt less an inspection and more a fleeting visit. The previous inspection seemed like an operation without anaesthetic and this was a visit to the GP. I respect fully of course that the exercise was significantly different for those in our senior management team!

I was due to take part in a further focus group of Principal Teachers but I had to pull out as we had gotten word that my wife’s maternal grandfather was gravely ill.

Part 2: Death and Life, Failure and Hope

The final week of term was a mix of great highs and great lows.

On the Thursday there was the Dearest Scotland book launch. I had submitted my letter and backed the Kickstarter and this was when all the efforts put in by so many people came to fruition. It also meant that like a TeachMeet I got to meet some folks from my Twitter feed!

Despite being on or in a variety of media, there seems something very special about having your words appear in a book.

I wrote my letter on a Mac. I then emailed it before it was placed on the website  and on my blog. At no point was it anything other than a set of 1s and 0s. But to hold a book and be able to point to a couple of pages that were written by me seemed to have a huge resonance.

Maybe this is why for years countless folks rushed out to get a copy of the local paper when their wee niece or grandson appeared in it. Is it better to have a clipping than to point at a webpage?

Who knows, maybe it is down to the possibility, decades from now of undertaking a re-run of the JR Hartley Yellow Pages ad?

The bounce I gained from that evening was huge but my fun was cut short just before 11 o’clock by a tweet from Frances Coppola:

“So sad. Greek mother and son find dead baby washed up on beach, say they will bury him as if he was a member of their own family.”

My Dearest Scotland letter focussed on meeting the needs of children today and future generations.

Yet, as I write the children of others are being washed up on shores within my continent.  Their parents are demonised for wanting to escape from war or poverty.

What is it that allows us to put up with this continuing tragedy, or permits our leaders to pander to headlines rather than humanity?

It’s us. We allow it. It’s our failure.

It’s the same failure that meant that not long after that tweet and the sadness it brought I was back up to normal.

Or, maybe it’s just me.

I suffer from moodiness that can mean moving all-too-quickly from peaks to troughs and back again.

Indeed the regained positivity itself was cut short on the last morning of term by the sound of the phone ringing.

The news was that after being at death’s door the week before, and despite a recovery, a great man was now gone. This gave rise to many emotions: sadness that a life was at an end but gladness that his suffering and pain were now over.

The self-centred part of me also wondered just how to explain death to a 3-year-old. How to explain no more Great Granda cuddles and laughs. Maybe in this regard those that have faith have it a bit easier; death is not death, it’s not an end, it is simply a step to another and eternal life.

Even that pondering was forgotten with the ‘distraction’ of the working day. It was also helped by a man from Germany turning up to work at Anfield.

Like most Liverpool fans I have been swept up by the positivity, the hope generated by the appointment of Jürgen Klopp as manager. Time will tell if this turns out to be what is hoped – the start of something big, or if it is just a false dawn after so many others.

In this regard, football is like life. We celebrate the wins, despair at the losses and somehow manage to move on to the next game. Every season we start with renewed hope.

In school, it’s no different. Regardless of the exam results we start off with classes with hope. We hope we’ll do better, that pupils will learn more and enjoy greater success. Yet, there are set backs on the way. The class or student that doesn’t quite gel with you, the deadlines you can’t meet through workload and *horror* family ‘getting in the way’ or the myriad incidents, lessons or whatever that make up life as a teacher. We try to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and try again the next lesson.

We face the challenges of our own personal and our working lives. In doing so, we experience and are part of the lives of so many others: the pupil who has suffered bereavement in the same class as the pupil who has a new baby sister; the colleague under pressure and the one who has at long last got that promotion.

What is it that allows us to work through these things? One thing for sure is that it is getting harder for many teachers to do so.

I wonder, are we serious about teacher agency and autonomy? Will it be the reflection that teachers themselves undertake as well as those with colleagues and pupils that determine next steps?  Or will we be continuing to wait for an external agency to come and visit? Worse still, will the government press ahead with the utter stupidity of a new form of standardised testing?

What is it that allows us to put up with these things, or permits our leaders to pander to headlines rather than pedagogy?

Will it be us? Will we allow it? If so, will it will be our failure, when we face so many challenges just to get by?

Maybe if the work of inspectors was re-engineered to fit the desires of schools and teachers and the pupils they served.

Maybe if workload and our contr(actual) obligations matched what we were paid to do.

Maybe if the focus was on meeting the needs of pupils rather than them or us jumping through hoops or ticking boxes our schools would be places where hope blossomed.

Ending at the Beginning.

In what will probably be the final [directly] SSTA-related speech/blog post, I’m ending with the first speech I made at an SSTA Congress. It was the last motion discussed in 2002 and I had the graveyard slot at the end of the day when everyone was wanting away and home.

My motion called for the ending of PFI, and here is as close to the text of my remarks as I can provide. As the Conservative government sells off more of the state’s assets and continues with austerity, it seems timely to recall it.

Congress, the case against PFI rests upon three simple grounds:

First, it was corrupt in its inception, second, it is uneconomic in its operation, and third it is damaging in its effects on our public services.

Put simply, It means jobs for the boys, profits for the city and privatisation for our schools – and all at the expense of our pupils.

The Private Finance Initiative is one of a whole host of schemes which under the guise of benefiting the public sector plunder it.

As reported by Paul Foot on channel 4:

PFI in the UK was the brainchild of a committee set up under the Tories in the early 1990s. A key member of which was the deputy managing director of General Electric – a man called Malcolm Bates.

Despite being vehemently against PFI before the 1997 election, after it Labour brought in a top businessman to advise them on PFI and came ‘round to his views, he was …Malcolm Bates.

A whole series of further PFI schemes were launched one of the largest of which was the Edinburgh Royal infirmary. It was built by a consortium including BICC, who’s Board was joined by… Malcolm Bates. Indeed, so happy with him were the government, that Malcolm soon became Sir Malcolm.

It’s just one example amongst many of people advising or promoting PFI to the government who after the deal’s been done, end up working for the beneficiaries.

PFI allows the few to get their snouts in the trough – it’s only the start of the scandalous waste of public money that is the Private Finance Initiative.

Even though the projects involving schools are relatively new on the scene, the lessons from these and from other parts of the public sector are clear for all to see.

The first waste of money is the fact that for a private consortium to borrow money it costs more than it would for the government to do so. Then come the set-up costs for the private sector including millions being spent on financial and legal advisors; prominent amongst which are our job-sizing friends at PriceWaterhouse Coopers.

PFI supporters insist that it presents a cheaper alternative to the public sector due to the risks involved in building and running facilities being transferred to the private sector.

However, the reality is of the manipulation of comparisons between public and private in order to create a false impression of value for money. In the case of the Glasgow schools contract, Unison has pointed out that the risk factor of building by the public sector was calculated at £70 million to cover up the fact that the council would be paying nearly £35 million more by going down the PFI route.

In the case of the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary – the full business case presented by the NHS trust did not even bother to compare project costs on a like for like basis. The effect of this according to independent analysts will see the project costing an extra £6 million per year over the next 15 years.

The recent controversy involving the PPP scheme to privately build and operate 3 prisons in Scotland show clearly the attempts of the Executive to pretend that there are substantial savings to be made in pressing ahead with PPP.

The clams of a £700m gap between public and private provision were rubished by independent analysts who cut through the biased assumptions of the PPP scheme.

In any case, the estimated private costs soon change after the deals have been done. In the Glasgow schools project the year one accommodation costs grew from an initial estimate of £24 million to over £36 million.

Fundamentally, risk is not transferred to the private sector as if a project fails the public sector will have to bail it out. Witness the additional funds needed to complete the new air traffic control system. Witness as well the additional funds needed to properly install computer systems for the immigration service, the passport agency and now, the Child Support Agency. Witness PFI and witness a total waste of money.

Incredibly though, when a council believes that a contract should be terminated due to the private sector  not keeping to its side of the bargain – it has to compensate the PFI contractors for contract termination – even if the PFI consortium are to blame!

When you add in the fact that private companies are out to maximise profit – the costs of PPP rise even further above public sector provision – and all for the sake of transferring public assets to the private sector.

PFI is backdoor privatisation which puts profits before prisoners, profits before patients and profits before pupils.

PFI supporters insist that PFI is the only deal in town  but Congress, under PFI rules if a council goes to the Executive saying that it wants PFI because it doesn’t have any alternative – they would be barred from obtaining PFI in the first place!

PFI supporters also say that its the only option, as the money would not otherwise be there to pay for these projects. But Congress, the current account surpluses of recent years are much greater than the value of the PFI deals which have been struck. The money is already there its just not getting used to provide better public services.

There simply is no economic case for PFI – but it’s the damage to public services that is the final part of the overwhelming case against PFI.

In order to make their costs less than the public sector, corners are cut.

Any cost savings can only be made from reducing the quality of the resource, the service provided or the conditions for the workers,

In our prisons it will mean less rehabilitation schemes – and an increase in crime. In our hospitals it means less beds and higher waiting lists. In our schools it means less facilities and more stress for teachers.

In hospital PFI projects an average cut of 33% in bed numbers has been made, in school projects facilities are cut back. In the Fife PFI scheme already, the consortium are putting old equipment in the new schools.

PFI brings the promise of the new but delivers the reality of the old.

The increase in the accommodation costs in Glasgow alone has resulted in the loss of seven swimming pools, many classrooms and many staff common rooms.

We are seeing more buildings with less facilities – and are paying for the privilege. Indeed this is further compounded by stories coming from those working in the new facilities that the basic fabric of the new buildings is not up to much in the first place.

The contracts last anything up to 30 years but the needs of communities in relation to school buildings has changed greatly over the last 30 years, who can say with confidence that they wont change radically over the next 30? But PFI forces us into inflexible deals over the long term.

Rather than investing in public services, PFI seeks to privatise them. Rather than investing in the future, PFI mortgages it. Rather than investing in value for money, PFI wastes money.

PFI puts public money which should be spent providing better education into the hands of profiteers. But it doesn’t have to be a choice between PFI and leaky windows between PFI and crumbling buildings, between PFI and poor resources.

There are alternatives to privatisation which are economic, viable and indeed desirable – they simply involve the government moving away from its dogmatic desire to line the pockets of the private sector at the expense of the public.

Putting money into the troughs for the snouts of the private profiteers cannot be, never has been and never will be in the interests of public services.

Congress, the pupils in our schools must come before the profits of big business.

The executive must put education before profit.

The chancellor must think again and get rid of these PFI schemes before they do any more damage that they’ve already done.

I move.

Calling Time…

I have written to SSTA General Secretary Seamus Searson tendering my resignation from active involvement within the Association.

The substantial text of my letter is as follows:

One of the things that a holiday period brings is a chance to reflect and a chance to regroup. It is also a time to ponder what lies ahead both in the immediate future and the time beyond that.

Following my own reflections I believe the conclusion is inescapable that I have become too thinly spread-out. This has been to the detriment of both my family and my own individual health.

This year, my work as Fife District Secretary was made more challenging and difficult because my facilities time and school time were split each day. Juggling this and my school responsibilities as I had predicted last year has proved impossible. I have carried out neither role with the level of efficacy that I had hoped would be the case.

Added to this the burden I have created for myself in seeking to move the Education Committee forward and the one I have inherited latterly as Acting President. These have further compounded the challenge and my feeling of being unable to over come them all.

My priority is to be the best husband, father, teacher, leader and manager that I can be. I have gained so many skills. experiences and opportunities in my SSTA involvement but these are increasingly getting in the way of the priorities that I have.

Søren Kierkegaard wrote that: “The more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.”

The time has come for me to set limits in what I do to achieve a greater degree of resourcefulness.

Consequently I am herby resigning as Vice-President of the SSTA, and am withdrawing my nomination to the post of President with immediate effect.

As a result I will also demit office as Convener of the Education Committee and my ex-officio membership of all SSTA Committees and Panels. Since my term of office as District Secretary comes to an end at Congress anyway, I am stepping down from these duties too with immediate effect.

You have already shown the necessary vision, energy and drive to take the Association forward. The SSTA under you as General Secretary will have its best days ahead of it I am sure.

My thanks go to all those in the SSTA that I have worked alongside over many years. Whilst I am sad that I will not be taking the journey ahead with you, I am confident that you will go from strength to strength.

With all good wishes

Robert

There will be no further comment on this specific matter at this time but I will of course, continue to tweet and blog.

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Dearest Scotland

Finally, I got around to writing my letter to the future Scotland.

You should do so too. Find out more at http://www.dearestscotland.com

Dearest Scotland,

Please look after my children. They will no doubt spend much more of their lives in your care than in mine.

Clearly, I won’t live forever but will you?

I had hoped that as my youngest daughter took her first steps that you too, would be taking your first steps as a newly re-established nation-state.

It seems that we all have much work to do to help you learn to walk and walk tall again.

That work, like the work of a parent, takes place every day. It is in the daily actions we take that shape the lives we lead and the people we become – and it is the sum of these that makes the Scotland we have and the Scotland you will become.

You face many challenges my friend.

The pessimism of my intellect suggests that the inequality, the pollutants we place in our environment (and those we place in our bodies and minds) will hold you back.

Just as your land is scarred from the motion of ancient ice, your people are scarred from the inaction of modern politicians.

Your people are all equal, all different, all human. Too often though, many of your children face inequality based upon those differences and treatment that is all too inhuman.

You are a country of riches, yet one of unfairness.

For too many Scots, hatred is directed at victims of poverty not at the culprits.

For too many Scots, tolerance is about putting up with others and not including them.

For too many Scots, the drive into despair not only continues, it accelerates.

Despite this, the optimism in my heart looks at you and knows that the best Scotland is yet to come, and moreover that we get to make it.

It is in our hands, through the daily actions we take that can and must shape that better Scotland.

Politics is made by people. It can be changed by people.

We can learn to hate inequality instead of hating its victims.

We can learn to hate racism instead of hating those with a different background.

We can learn to devote more attention to social justice than criminal justice.

We can learn that what we claim as our culture, our heritage, our language can never be diminished through helping others to enjoy theirs. Indeed, when we mix these things the sum is even greater than the parts.

We can learn that big community trumps big business each and every time.

My role as a parent is to help equip my children with the knowledge, skills and wisdom to help you become that better Scotland.

My dear Scotland, you owe me nothing and I owe you so much. You have been my home and have shaped my identity and my values.

So, not for me but for my children. Be what I hope they become: a better version of what has gone before.

Yours Aye,

Robert

Joining, leaving and then maybe rejoining a political party. Part 1

When I was wee, it was simple.

There was only one party that supported Scottish independence: the Scottish National Party.

My parents were both members of the SNP and I can recall my first bout of political activism.

It came during the 1983 election campaign. My older sister had been given a task by her teacher to draw an election poster and her group had to draw one for the Conservatives. Something didn’t sit right with 10-year-old me. The Conservatives were the party of Mrs Thatcher and she was not for Scotland. I knew this because that is what my Dad said.

I asked my Mum what party she supported and she told me the SNP, and I got to work creating a poster that said: “Vote for Scotland, Vote for the SNP”. It had a wee Saltire on it too and was a country mile better than my sister’s efforts in support of Mrs T.

This cemented an interest in current affairs that hasn’t left me since. Four years later I was handing out leaflets for the SNP in my local area in the 87 election campaign and then staying up late into the night watching the results. Several modern studies jotters laced with SNP mentions and slogans later and I was in the party itself. Now 16 I could join and did so after a public meeting featuring Jim Sillars in Castlemilk.

What followed was a 7 year period of handing out leaflets, canvassing and going to meetings and social events. The high points were the places visited and the people met. The low-points were the lost elections and the failed campaigns.

One event stayed with me the most and has had the deepest impact. With many others I helped form a human shield to prevent Sheriff Officers from entering the home of a woman to then hold a Poinding for Poll Tax debts.

The woman in question was a lone parent and she had barely anything in her house. Net curtains kept the weather out and no doubt Peter was robbed to pay Paul. Her poverty was laid bare. It was only out of necessity that she had opened her home to us but she was as generous and welcoming as it was possible to be in the circumstances.

This was the reality of our politics. Here was the target of the ‘Community Charge’ – the poorest in our community.

The whole situation summed-up why I was an activist: to work in solidarity with others to bring about a society that did not see such poverty nor such attacks on the poor.

That solidarity was with people in my own party, in other parties and in no party.

So what changed?

Me. I changed.

I have always known that political parties are umbrella groups of people with similar but not the same ideas on how the country should be run. I wanted a break as I felt that I could no longer campaign and ask people to vote for something I myself could not guarantee I’d back.

The drift had started long before this at a Special Conference in Govan in Spring 1991, when the party abandoned its Poll Tax non-payment campaign. Through a topical resolution at a conference the campaign ended but:

Conference reserves the right to launch a new non-payment campaign if the Government reneges on the promises made in the House of Commons that the new scheme will conform to the principles of fairness and ability to pay and will contain rebate arrangements to protect people on low incomes.

That ‘new scheme’ was of course the fair and based upon ability to pay Council Tax that still remains with us today.

Much of this was simply down to my own political development.

I had grown up politically inside a party and was to an extent partly bounded by defending its stance on any given issue – as well as being bounded by my own naivety.

Taking a break necessitated not renewing my membership. This decision was personal not political. I felt that retaining a party card meant that it would be too easy to fall back into activism and that was not for me at that time. I didn’t leave with any hurrah, nor any intention of joining another party.

That break has continued now for almost 18 years.

In that time, many of the people I campaigned with, laughed with and got drunk with have stayed and are now at the top or near the top of our government.

My former colleagues now increasingly feature in my lessons as their pictures and names are appearing in the web pages, exam questions and news articles that my pupils access.

Am I jealous of their success? No, not one bit. I do admit to taking some pride though in what they have achieved and will no doubt go on to achieve.

I have thought about rejoining them at different times but have not done so.

Yet.

The first question is over the extent to which one compromises one’s own principles and world view to sit under the umbrella again – and to ask others to join us.

Also, to what extent does taking a party card actually help achieve those things that we want in society? People’s views on this seem to have changed following the referendum, and the immediate response would be that it takes more than simply holding a membership card.

Unlike when I was wee, the SNP is no longer the sole pro-Independence party, nor does it hold any monopoly on a commitment to social justice.

Finally, does ‘owning-up’ to a party political badge mean that our words and deeds become tainted? [Well, they would say that because they are a member of Party X]

That’s for Part 2. Whenever that comes.