EIS empty vessels making a lot of noise

It probably made Mike Russell’s day.  For years, the Education Secretary has been trying to perfect a look that can best be described as a school-teacher’s one.  One that fixes the recipient with a steely gaze and shows that he means business.  It would appear he has finally managed it, if the EIS President Alan Munro, is to be believed, transmuting this gaze onto paper.   Apparently, his offer of help to schools struggling to implement the Curriculum for Excellence came with a “sinister threatening tone“.

Without actually explaining what he means by that, of course.  Still, made for a nice headline and possibly a satisfied smile from the Cabinet Secretary.

Next up at the EIS conference was the new General Secretary, Lanny Flanagan who tried to match his President in the hyperbole stakes when he warned the Education Secretary and the Scottish Government that it “cannot hide behind the coat-tails of some Eton toffs on pension reform for teachers.

The General Secretary was good enough to acknowledge that it is the UK Government which, in the name of austerity, intends to make people in the public sector work longer and pay more towards their pensions.  “We know who the guilty are in this great cash robbery“, he said but also suggested that teachers will expect the Scottish Government to stand up for them and “if they fail to deliver a fair settlement on pensions here in Scotland, we are prepared to fight them every bit as hard as we will fight the UK Government on this issue“.

Just what Scottish education needs:  a street-walking, talking, fighting man, prepared to draw the battle lines, and pronounce in tones far more sinister and threatening than anything Mike Russell is alleged to have uttered or written.  What Flanagan is saying if we lose the battle with the UK Government – and they will – we expect the Scottish Government to make up the shortfall in the pensions settlement.  Which sounds awfy like a case for local bargaining, something else the ConDem government wants to push through and the unions supposedly are against.  Shame no one told Larry Flanagan the script.

But if the Scottish Government was to make good the pensions settlement, something would have to give.  Either it uses revenue from the new taxes which will be in place by the time these pension reforms go through, or it cuts from existing expenditure.  Neither is palatable.

Especially if the shortfall is made up from existing education expenditure. Will students and parents applaud the Scottish Government refusing to hide behind Eton toffs’ coat-tails?  Will they agree with the priority that sees more going into teachers’ pockets and purses and less directly into children’s learning?  Less to spend on classroom resources, on equipment, on learning support is what it means. Would such a move improve teachers’ morale and productivity, therefore improving outcomes for children and young people?  Which is what the EIS is always telling us by the way, that if we just valued teachers a little more, the rest would take care of itself.

I’m not sure parents and families – who have just as many votes to spare in elections as teachers do – would buy it, any of it.  Especially when we have years of austerity living ahead of us.

For all the high-blown rhetoric of the EIS leadership, the delegates weren’t buying it either.  There was a welcome outbreak of common-sense when members voted against precipitate strike action on the timetable for introducing exams linked to the Curriculum for Excellence.  As one delegate pointed out, the union had only agreed a deal with the Scottish Government a few months ago on support measures – the sinister threatening thing – for schools struggling to meet the timetable.  Teachers needed to keep to their side of the bargain, was the argument, and see if the promised support makes any difference before throwing their toys out of the pram.

Members agreed.  Which might be something Mr Munro wants to reflect on.

Just as Mr Flanagan might wish to reflect that there are more ways to make your mark as the new boy in post than grabbing headlines.  There is no doubt that Ronnie Smith is a hard act to follow.  He had his moments over the years when he led his membership to the barricades, but he also knew which battles to pick.

Pensions worry everyone, but they are a whole lot more troublesome to them that haven’t got one. While the unions clearly have a case against the UK government’s vandalism, it’s less clear that the public at large would agree to go without so teachers can have more.  If offered the chance to reverse some of the austerity measures being imposed by the Eton toffs, I doubt if public sector pension changes would be in the top five.  And even fewer would opt for the Scottish Government making up the shortfall, not when other services would have to be cut to enable it.

If Larry Flanagan thinks this is the fight to take to the Scottish Government, he’s wrong.  It is a union leaders’ job to promote his members’ interests but not when they have become so vested that they are pitted against those interests they are there to serve – the public’s.  Producer interests have no more rights in this austerity morass than we do and at some point, public sector workers have to realise we really are all in this together.  It’s us – all of us – against them.

The Education Secretary might occasionally feel that everything is a fight right now.  Getting anything done means battling against all the interests set fast against change, be it good or bad.

But these empty vessel speeches and the response of the membership indicate the creation of a gap, between rhetoric and reality.  And give hints as to who might win out.  As well as practising the sinister and threatening tones, Mike Russell might also want to start rehearsing his maniacal laugh.


Our children’s future at stake

I’m glad that I don’t have a child in secondary school right now.  In fact, I’m hoping that the current furore over Curriculum for Excellence and the shift to National examinations will have become a folklore legend by the time the chicklet arrives at the big school.

But there must be many parents and carers – and young people – out there feeling awfy nervous right now.  Recent chatter suggests that the new system is not ready to go and currently who is to blame resembles a game of pass the parcel.

It started with East Renfrewshire council seeking to delay implementation of the new exams which are due to kick in for current S2 pupils in the next school year.  Then we had the SSTA – which represents only a third of secondary school teachers – doing the studio rounds, talking up the concerns on radio phone-ins.  The Education Secretary, Mike Russell, was then grilled on Good Morning Scotland on the back of a handful of texts and emails purportedly from worried and stressed teachers.

Of course, Labour got in on the act.  In a recent Scottish Parliamentary debate, Hugh Henry, the party’s education spokesperson, suggested that his party was “speaking up for the thousands of teachers and parents across Scotland who are expressing fears and concerns.”  He added, somewhat superfluously, that “we cannot afford to gamble with the future of our children“.

On this he is dead right.

So I do wish he, his party, the teaching unions, the media and the rump of malcontents in the teaching profession wouldn’t try to.  For good measure, I’ll throw in the national education bodies – take your pick from the Scottish Qualifications Authority and Education Scotland, the national curriculum and inspection body – and local education authorities.  That’s the councils to thee and me.  If we are not ready after eight years of planning and preparing for the final countdown, then what on earth have they been doing?

Everyone is determined to whip up a storm on this one, with hyperbole being scattered around and facts thin on the ground.  Many are working to their own agenda, losing sight of the fact that in the eye of the storm, are children and young people, who frankly deserve better.  As is too often in matters like this, the best interests of children get marginalised.

Far too many news outlets reported the media release issued by the EIS on the back of its “major poll” the other week without bothering to check whether the stats stacked up.  Only 2700 out of a possible 10,000 member teachers in secondary schools bothered to take part in the online poll.  That’s 27% or just over a quarter, which by most standards is a pretty poor response rate.

80% of respondents considered their workload increase to have been very high or high as a result of preparing for the final push in implementing Curriculum for Excellence – the introduction of new exams – but their point is?  Is a high workload increase by itself a bad thing?  Or simply what we might expect at a time of wholesale change in education? And why has the workload increased so greatly in the last year, when this shift has been gradual?

This is where questions should be asked of education authorities.  Directors of education are paid handsomely to plan for and execute education policy and in particular, to turn policy into practice.  If a small number of teachers – and it is a small number as will become clear – are struggling under workload, feeling stressed and unable to cope, then that is a problem.  So what is being done to address it?

Mike Russell has instructed an audit of all secondary schools to test readiness and good on him.  But he shouldn’t have had to – that information should have been being tracked and fed back to the Scottish Government on a regular basis.  Does Education Scotland not know which schools are good to go and which are not?  And if it does not have this information to hand, why not?

The level of panic that has been suggested, even fostered by the media, needs a reality check.  The headline finding from the EIS was that “only five per cent of its members were very confident of being able to deliver the new courses in the next school year”.  This is misleading.  It is not all members but only the ones who took part in the poll.

It is worrying that over 70% are barely confident or not confident at all of being able to do so, but it amounts to only 1890 teachers, an average of 5 per secondary school in Scotland.  Hardly the meltdown being portrayed.  But if there are teachers struggling, what is being done to either support them or show them the door?

After all, our children’s future is at stake here, as everyone keeps reminding us.  And it really is too precious to be risked by a small number of teachers who are unable to make the grade on implementing Curriculum for Excellence.  All our children deserve the same chance at success with this exciting shift in the way learning is planned and taught.  If some teachers cannot or will not, then they should not be allowed to damage the life chances of the children in their care.

Harsh?  Maybe. But whose interests come first here?  And it’s not as if there are not plenty of unemployed newly-trained teachers desperate for a chance to make their mark and their skills to the test.

Where there are failings in the support structures, these should be found and sorted.  If it requires heads to roll in these bodies, then so be it.   If there are teachers who are toiling, let’s sort that too.

But the bellyaching and scaremongering must stop.  This policy has been eight years in the making;  everyone has had plenty of time to get ready;  now is the time for action.

Everyone in Scottish education has a duty and a responsibility to make Curriculum for Excellence work and to ensure that our children have the best start in life and are ready to succeed.

McCormac review: am I missing something?

Am I missing something?

I’ve read the recommendations from the McCormac Review several times and some of the detail in the actual report.  I’ve read various responses and some of the media commentary.

So I ask again?  Am I missing something?

For I can see nothing that might have prompted the biggest teaching union, the EIS to suggest that the review is a Curate’s Egg and joins the “ranks of the diluters”, nor for one of the General Teaching Council of Scotland (GTCS) members to decry one of the proposals as “professionally inappropriate and potentially illegal”.  And is there really any justification for the SSTA to call them “plain silly” and “a waste of taxpayer’s money”?  Maybe I just expect too much from a body for whom over-reaction appears to be a way of life.

I am sure there are some nuances in the detail that pass this layperson by.  But if that is the case, then be warned unions, for they will pass the average person, and indeed parent, in the street by as well.

So teachers will have to stay in school all day?  Some of us will be surprised to learn they can and do leave.  What, do they take themselves off to Starbucks when they have no contact time?!

The idea of rolling up all the contact and non-contact time into monthly blocks rather than weekly ones seems fairly sensible to me.  That way, teachers can plan to have a whole day of non-contact time or more one presumes, to allow for additional development or taking themselves off on a specialist course or just spending a day scoping out a term module and project, or devoting proper time to marking assignments during the school day.  It also allows for a more intensive approach say to a particular project or module, though I do see how this benefits primary teachers more than secondary.  In reality, though the opportunity to roll up contact and non-contact time presents itself, realistically, will it happen on a regular basis? Particularly for secondary teachers, many of whom require a daily break from the fray in order to preserve their sanity, and rightly so.

It has been suggested that the removal of some restrictions will result in teachers doing other, non-teaching tasks, such as fixing computers or photocopying.  Those of us who work in the real world, meanwhile, who are often called upon to do or help out with tasks that no one would ever have dreamed of putting on our job descriptions, are bemused.  I suspect that the real concern about this move is going unspoken because while teachers might whisper it to each other, to say it out loud would shock us.  This move paves the way for teachers being required to help children with additional support needs, who might need some physical assistance with social care or other support tasks in order to participate fully in school life.

You can see why teaching unions might not want to be caught voicing opposition to this, even though on a day to day basis, they and their members do.  Daily, they are quite happy to allow a child to soil themselves before they’d assist him or her in getting to a toilet.  And then call for the parent to come and remove the child for soiling themselves.

The extension of teachers’ responsibilities to provide some of the additional support some children and young people need is a thorny issue indeed, but teachers’ inflexibility in this area has often held back the reality of inclusion for many children.  They may be integrated into classrooms but often that does not include getting to play with friends at break, or eat with peers at lunch, or go on school trips like others.  Enabling teachers to support such participation will go a long way to addressing some of these challenges.

Moreover, I for one, welcome the fact that at long last, supply teachers, classroom assistants and auxiliaries and the like will now be entitled to professional development.  That can only be a good thing for them, for teachers they work alongside, and most importantly, the pupils they support.  For many years, the disparity between classroom assistants and teachers in terms and conditions, training, salary and even contracts has become a yawning chasm:  closing it is fair and proper, ensuring that some of the lowliest paid people in local authorities who do one of the most important jobs get proper status and potentially qualifications.  Teachers might not like it but that isn’t the really the point or the purpose.

The same can be said of the kneejerk opposition to having non-teaching folk in our classrooms imparting their knowledge and skills to young people.  I want my child to get the best education and learning experience possible.  To have the chance to learn about music or art or literature from a visiting professional, an external expert as the review terms them, excites me.  There are risks inherent in the idea that an expert in anything can also teach but the recommendation states plainly that education is “teacher-led” and empowers headteachers to decide to allow the experts to work with a class directly on their own.  Do unions not trust headteachers to make the right judgement call?

You can see why organisations established to guard closely its members’ interests would seize upon anything they suspect might threaten those interests.  But for too long it has been assumed that what is in teachers’ interests is automatically also in children’s interests.  McCormac has drawn a subtle distinction with its review and report.  Some of the recommendations need careful thought and application if they are not to undermine both, of course, but as a whole, there is very little in these recommendations that ordinary folk, and importantly, parents might disagree with.  Not all change is bad, after all and resisting change for the sake of it, in the current climate, is unlikely to garner many supporters outwith the teaching profession.