It’s not about the right to teach but about the right to learn

COSLA seems determined to make waves at the moment.  Today its Chief Executive is taking on the Scottish Government over the “free-dom” of universal services;  on Sunday it was back on a favourite stomping ground, that of apparently bashing teachers.

In its submission to the McCormac review on the future of teachers’ pay and conditions, COSLA suggested that the primary role of teachers wasn’t to teach but that a “teacher’s primary responsibility above all others is the wellbeing of children within their care, and they have a duty to work in a collegiate way”.

The comments were seized upon by the unions and also the Scottish Parent Teacher Council (SPTC) and frothed against.  Battle lines are increasingly drawn.

Both sides are partially right but what is being lost in the smoke of battle is the real purpose of education and the actual statutory responsibilities of all concerned.

This was further underlined by the spat last week over jobs for newly qualified teachers.  Could there be any other profession where there is some kind of unwritten right to a job?  Cold comfort I know, but there are plenty of other newly qualified professionals struggling to get a full-time job, though we hear little of their struggles.  Of course it is madness to spend years – at universal expense – educating and training young people for a particular purpose only for them to fail to get a job in their chosen profession.  Many of them drift away into other careers or even jobs to make ends meet, and their skills and knowledge are lost.  That in itself is ludicrous.  But somehow, teachers are treated as a special case compared to everyone else.

The assertion from the Cabinet Secretary for Education, Mike Russell, that teacher unemployment has caused him the most sleepless nights is remarkable.  Really?  I would have been more assured if he confessed to losing sleep over what the future holds for our children, of the life chances for the most vulnerable, of education’s collective failure despite years of record investment to improve educational attainment for the bottom 20%.

Taken together, these skirmishes serve to show that education in Scotland is inexorably skewed towards producer interests, with the needs and rights of children an inconvenient sideshow.  For sure, it is important that in order for children to be educated, we require a workforce that is well paid,  motivated and enjoys getting out of bed to go to work everyday.  But when that concern appears to over-ride all others, we are in trouble.

COSLA is nearly right.  In fact, the legislation backs the local authorities’ organisation up.  The Standards of Scotland’s Schools etc Act 2000 put in law –  remarkably for the first time – a child’s right to an education.  Moreover, the duty of the education authority was explicitly expressed:  “to secure that the education is directed to the development of the personality, talents and mental and physical abilities of the child or young person to their fullest potential.”

This provision which focuses on the concept of education rather than teaching or being taught is the current foundation for education in this country.  And yet, teachers and their representatives continue to twist this statutory duty into meaning that their role is to teach.  Which is why, year after year, the statistics and research show that vulnerable children – those coping with parental substance misuse, children caring for adults or siblings in their families, children with disabilities, children living in deprived communities in inter-generational worklessness, children who misbehave in a desperate cry for help – are not achieving their potential in education.  Their attendance records are lower, they are more likely to be excluded, they are less likely to pass important exams and least likely of all to go on to further or higher education.

Why?  The reasons are, of course, complex and multi-farious.  But every time a teacher insists on teaching without looking beyond the unkempt appearance, for the reasons beyond the acting up or inattentiveness, for the ways to understand and support children, to go beyond the confines of their delineated role, a child is failed.  In short, by failing to combine teaching with promoting the wellbeing of such children, many of these children simply cannot be taught.

Of course I generalise.  For every teacher who ignores what is patently under their nose, there is another who goes out of their way to ensure that every child in their classroom is supported and primed to learn.  Who provides a safe space and a positive role model.  Who ensures that statutory supports are put in place.  And there are fine headteachers who create an inclusive ethos in their schools and fight for the supports the children in their charge need to learn.  With teachers like these, all children have a chance.  But the facts don’t lie – 20% of children fail in education and have done so now for many years.  There has been no significant improvement and no real understanding yet of why.

But it does suggest that overall, we need a different approach and that COSLA might be right to try and move us into a different realm, where education is much more child-centred and less teacher-focused.  It might seem like stating the obvious, but surely teachers can only teach if they put the needs and wellbeing of children before all other concerns.



8 thoughts on “It’s not about the right to teach but about the right to learn

  1. It was a potential “hostage to fortune” statement that needn’t have been added to the front of the sentence or could have been “rather than”-ed and put at the end. Pretty poor grammar as well. Otherwise it was a fair enough point, particularly in early years.

    Education has developed into the usual febrile realms of number shouting and generalisation. That’ll be politics and industrial relations then. Meanwhile for “Additional” read “Optional” Support in what is a Statutory, never mind a moral, obligation to provide Learning. On this one you can stick your Concordat where the sun don’t shine – it’s called “looking the other way” by Government and a combination of “unwilling and possibly unable” by Education Authorities.

    And please don’t start any of that “democratic local flexibility/accountability” on me – I’m not in the mood.

    You are absolutely right – it’s not about anyone other than those who are learning. The sheer tribalism involved appals me – children have been hijacked by an industrial and political/ideological dispute. That’s beyond shabby.

    • Absolutely beyond shabby. And direction of travel is toward this much more holistic approach to education – teachers will have to move with it. It never ceases to amaze me how long politicians can speak about education for without mentioning children – next time you hear speeches, time ’em. It will depress you even more!

  2. Jobs for newly qualified teachers is ridiculous, there are too many.

  3. When local authorities stop measuring and judging teachers solely on exam results then … and only then… might I buy COSLA’s whole child holistic platitudes.

    In an ideal world every child would be able to reach their full potential in education, but so long as teacher’s only target is to increase year-on-year the proportion of pupils who get 5+ A-C passes at SCQF Level 6 by the end of S6 I wouldn’t hold your breath… we can’t all live and be educated in East Renfrewshire.

    • School league tables are going I think, if I remember rightly. My son just got his report card and there isn’t even a single grade or level on it. The way it should be. And HMIE takes a very dim view of schools focused solely on exam results in inspections. East Renfrewshire has a small number of schools with large rolls and invests above average spend in those schools in all areas. That’s the secret of their success, and probably also some unofficial streaming of who gets into their schools and who doesn’t. You’d struggle to find any concrete evidence of that, though, just a hunch!

  4. “In short, by failing to combine teaching with promoting the wellbeing of such children, many of these children simply cannot be taught.”

    We do not have enough teachers, nor do teachers have enough time to become parents to their pupils and social workers to their families. I would argue that teachers are there to teach and teach alone. For every pupil that is failing that gets extra teacher support, how many others that just needed a few extra words or one small detail explained to help them increase their educational attainment have not got it due to the teacher not concentrating just as much on them?

    The failure of those 20% is not because of poor schooling. Its probably as low as 20% because of excellent schooling. At some point we have to look to the parents of children who are struggling and say clearly and loudly – “you, not teachers, not social workers, not politicians, not society, are failing your children”. At the same time, we as a society, need to be clear about what we are going to do fix that failure.

  5. “Could there be any other profession where there is some kind of unwritten right to a job?”

    Yes – the health service. I think it is an outcome of a situation where the state is basically a monopoly employer.

  6. Some fair points but I can’t agree with them all.

    It is correct that teachers should take account of more than just what happens in class. However this is certainly harder as the number of deputy heads and principal teachers (who can pursue concerns) are cut. An example of people talking one way but putting resources another.

    I also think it’s true to say that noone in the world is guaranteed a job (although there have been complaints from nurses too). Where unemployed teachers are annoyed though is in asking why they were allowed to train in the first place. Surely workforce planning should have stopped such a huge surplus.

    Talk of different approaches is valid although teachers might argue that this is what they are constantly told. Curriculum for Excellence anyone? If we do want changes we have to either invest more or change workloads elsewhere, and who is suggesting that?

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