LARRY Flanagan could have been a national politician before he worked his way through the ranks of the Educational Institute of Scotland, the country’s leading teaching union.

In the late 80s, he was blocked from being the Labour candidate in the famous Govan by-election and was a Militant Labour councillor in Glasgow.

His political career ended after he was suspended from the Labour group in the early 1990s over a poll tax row. He knuckled down as a highly-regarded English teacher at Hillhead High and rose to become EIS general secretary five years ago.

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Sitting in the union’s unflashy Glasgow office, the 61 year old smiles when recalling his Labour past, but he has a curious take on why he left the party:

“I stayed in the Labour party till the 90s, until [Labour peer] George Robertson refused to sanction NATO’s intervention in Bosnia. And that was when I thought ‘myself and New Labour aren’t a good match’.”

I fear his mind may be playing tricks on him. The Bosnian War ended in 1995 - when John Major was Prime Minister - and Lord Robertson took over at NATO four years later. The dates don’t match. “Maybe I am getting mixed up,” he says. “I am pretty sure that was right.”

Does he still think of himself as a Trotskyist? “I still consider myself a socialist,” he says.

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As general secretary, he is the most senior figure in a teacher union that has over 60,000 members. Flanagan is also a key player in the national debate on closing the attainment gap.

However, despite alarming statistics – literacy and numeracy outcomes are heading south – Flanagan is protective of a system he does not believe is fundamentally flawed. He complains that education has become a “political football”, hits out at the “narrative of failure” and refers to “apparent decline”.

The Government’s schools agenda has three strands: national standardised assessments; governance reform; and giving more cash to headteachers, not councils. Does he believe these policies will lead to the gap closing? “Standardised assessments certainly won’t,” he says. “If you create artificial barriers around failure for kids early on, it becomes really difficult to overcome them.”

Flanagan’s view is that poverty is the primary cause of educational inequality. However, given that few people expect the current UK Government to cut poverty rates, the logic of his argument seems to be that the gap is not going to close. “I don’t think the attainment gap will disappear whilst you have inequality in society," he says, bleakly.

Flanagan is not alone in holding this opinion, but such a deterministic view of poverty may be convenient for the EIS in that it puts the onus on matters beyond the classroom.

Isn’t his union against the publication of standardised assessment data because the results may reflect badly on some of his members?

“The danger with publishing that one bit of evidence, rather than the overall, is that’s what becomes the focus,” he says. “And as soon as that becomes the focus, or the measure at which you compare schools, or the measure at which you assess whether teachers are doing their job, then that gives a disproportionate emphasis to that assessment.”

He puts it more bluntly: “If you start publishing the data, then with all due respect, people like yourself will start manipulating it.”

On numeracy, I read him what trainee teacher Halla Price told the Holyrood Education Committee recently about her course. “I do not believe that everyone graduating from Moray House [Edinburgh University’s School of Education] this year has the sufficient skills in numeracy to be able to teach it to 11-year-olds at a reasonable standard,” she said.

Is this accurate, I ask? “I don’t know what she bases that on. I would be surprised if that was true,” he says.

If she is right, is it any surprise there are problems with pupil numeracy? “You are saying ‘if’ she right,” he retorts.

Does he accept that some teachers are not good enough to be in the classroom? “If you have got your post-grad qualification, then you have demonstrated a capacity to be an effective teacher. Beyond that, you then need to look at how people are supported,” he says.

Surely there must be some? “If there is any teacher who is not performing effectively in the classroom, that should be identified.”

Problems with the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) have also been aired at Holyrood. Teachers believe CfE, far from improving the system, has generated unnecessary paperwork. I point out that Flanagan represented the EIS on the CfE management board between 2009 and 2012. Shouldn’t everyone on that board take responsibility? “We said to Mike Russell that the timescale for introducing the changes to qualifications was far too tight,” he replies.

According to education sources, Flanagan has been astute behind the scenes in making the SNP Government think twice about policies the EIS believe would be unwise.

Tellingly, unlike council leaders, Flanagan speaks highly of Swinney. “I think he is very competent,” he says.

The EIS’s role, I would suggest, is misunderstood. It does not exist to close the attainment gap. Or stand up for parents. The job of the EIS is to represent the teachers who pay their subs. On this narrow point, Flanagan is an effective leader of a successful vested interest.

However, there is an irony to his £96,544 a year job. Flanagan used to want revolutionary change, but he is now in the vanguard of defending elements of the status quo.