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.