'HOW can you stand it?" a colleague asks.

"Two days of teachers whingeing about their terms and conditions."

For the uninitiated, the event being disparaged, albeit with tongue in cheek, is the annual general meeting of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), the country's largest teaching union.

Loading article content

Every year in June, hundreds of teachers from the union's branches across the country gather in either Perth or Dundee to eat, drink and make merry - and to discuss the pressing issues of the day.

It is certainly true that terms and conditions tend to dominate the motions submitted by local associations across the country and this year's event in Perth was no exception. Pay, pensions and workload were all the subject of lengthy and detailed debates as delegates baulked at the idea of working until they were 68, railed against below inflation salary increases and even threatened to go on strike over workload linked to the introduction of new exams.

These are the sort of debates that leave some private sector employees wondering what planet teachers live on. Outside the public sector, pensions have already been plundered, pay rises are non-existent and rising workload and its associated stresses are a given. There are also criticisms about the apparently cavalier threats made by teachers at the EIS to take industrial action over such issues, with very few strike ballots actually resulting in strikes.

But having attended the EIS agm over the past eight years, I am probably in a better position than most to judge its merits or otherwise.

At its heart, the meeting is democracy in action. It is an opportunity for the rank and file of the EIS, who are close to the classroom, to shape the future policy of the union at a national level. The ruling executive of the EIS is expected to take forward the motions that are carried and, while it is true some disappear without trace only to reappear the following year, on the whole the voice of the agm is heard and acted upon.

The agm is also important because of the issues raised. It would seem, for example, to be entirely counter-productive to the quality of education of the nation's young people for teachers approaching the age of 70 to be required to continue teaching before being able to gain access to their pension.

And the workload issues raised were not just a general gripe. School staff have been given the task of delivering one of the most significant curricular reforms in a generation and the support from government bodies such as the Scottish Qualifications Authority and Education Scotland has been lacking.

But even more precious is the fact the agm allows the voice of the ordinary teacher to be heard. In amongst the odd extremist rants, classroom teachers are given a platform to air their concerns or share their experiences in a way that would usually have their council employers reaching for the disciplinary handbook. Growing numbers of media organisations no longer see the event as worth covering, but it is still a voice well worth listening to.