“It's a very volatile situation – we’re not allowed to stray from our hotels… Because we’re European, we’ll be immediate targets for criminality.”

Speaking virtually from Bogotá, Colombia, a bleary-eyed Larry Flanagan is not on holiday. Only days before, the general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) helped observe round one of the country’s presidential election – an inconclusive contest that will now go to a run-off between ex-guerrilla Gustavo Petro and “TikTok populist” Rodolfo Hernández. Mr Flanagan also tells The Herald that, later in the morning, he and his fellow Justice for Colombia delegates will meet with British embassy staff to discuss the protection of human rights after decades of internal armed conflict.

The South American country has come a long way but progress towards lasting stability remains fragile. “The outgoing president is steeped in corruption,” Mr Flanagan says. “There’s a lot of illegal mining going on – the Amazon is getting stripped. [Our visit is] so that the Colombian Government is aware that the eyes of the world are on them.” Bodyguards are everywhere, he adds.

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Some would say volatile situations have been a recurring feature of Mr Flanagan’s career since he started out as a secondary English teacher in 1979. The following decade saw him become a Labour councillor for the east end of Castlemilk, representing some of Glasgow’s most deprived communities as Margaret Thatcher rolled out the poll tax. A former supporter of the Trotskyist Militant Tendency, he was suspended twice from the city’s Labour group – once for moving that the council should refuse to set the levy and then for backing efforts to prevent the submission of records that would identify those who hadn’t paid.

Speaking as he prepares to hand leadership of the EIS to Andrea Bradley, Mr Flanagan insists he has always been careful to maintain neutrality in the classroom. Nevertheless, he clearly sees a link between his earlier radicalism and the priorities that inform his teaching practice and his defence of Scotland’s education system. “My politics in terms of a general belief in equality, antiracism, attacking gender stereotyping – all of that was part of my professional life,” he says. “Lots of the things which are accepted now as mainstream approaches in Scottish education – tackling the impact of poverty – all of that was always part of my psyche in terms of classroom practice.

“If you go back to 1979 when I taught at Blantyre High, the first leavers class I had was called S4 vocational. These were kids who weren’t sitting any qualifications, because at that time it was the O-Grade and these kids were deemed not suitable for the O-Grade. But because the school leaving age had been raised in the 1970s to 16, they had to stay on. I had them out in the huts – and every single one of those pupils went straight from school on to the dole.”

HeraldScotland: Anti-government protesters take to the streets in Cali, Colombia. Larry Flanagan says the situation in the country is still volatile.Anti-government protesters take to the streets in Cali, Colombia. Larry Flanagan says the situation in the country is still volatile.

Mr Flanagan stresses there have since been huge shifts. “We used to organise schools on the basis of the attainment gap and schools were geared towards not addressing it but making sure the elite got their qualifications and moved on,” he says. “Now, anybody with that mindset would be totally out of kilter with how schools are operating.”

He is quick to disagree with Jamie Stone, Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, who recently asked Westminster Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi to advise Holyrood ministers on good teaching practice. “One of the people I’m here [in Colombia] with is Kevin Courtney, who’s the general secretary of the National Education Union, and we were just having a chat about everything that’s wrong in English education,” he says. “They are still hugely driven by marginal improvements in basic reading and writing, and they have set aside all of the broader issues around a child’s wellbeing, happiness, broader skills, social skills. I said, ‘the problem in Scotland is there are no strong metrics for measuring these things’ – but everybody knows [those priorities] are there. And, actually, if you look at the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) global competency study, Scotland was third or fourth in the world.”

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With a fresh wave of reforms being pursued in the wake of Professor Ken Muir’s landmark report on Scottish education, Mr Flanagan also acknowledges that much improvement is required. “I still think class sizes are too big and there’s a huge challenge around additional support needs,” he argues.

Another key change will be the creation of a new qualifications body. “The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) has become quite toxic for many teachers,” Mr Flanagan says. “Some of the expertise, like the subject specialists, the principal examiners – they’ll be critical to any system. But the management of the system, I think, has been found wanting. The SQA currently has a board, which is Government-appointed, but it’s detached completely from the [teaching] profession. We need a qualifications authority but it should be governed by the profession.”

Though set to stand down as general secretary after 10 years, it is obvious Mr Flanagan retains his zest for union work and teaching. Amid a dispute over pay, he says the EIS is preparing to be “ballot-ready” in the autumn and warns there is the “very real prospect” of industrial action next term.

“Whilst I won’t be returning full-time to teaching, I do intend to register with Glasgow and Renfrewshire councils regarding some supply work,” he adds. “I will also be staying on, for at least two years, as President of the European Trade Union Committee for Education. We have 127 teacher unions in 51 countries and over 11 million members. Whilst it is unpaid, it will certainly keep me busy.”