Teachers: the block to a better education system?

At last, something that has prompted me to blog.  And who’d a thunk it, it’s those darn teachers who have managed it.

Perhaps, though I should declare an interest, before the teacher lobby piles in suggesting I am anti-teacher.  I was raised by a teacher and grew up among them.  I loved most of my teachers and have huge respect for all those who inculcate knowledge and learning into today’s cherubs.  The problem is there are plenty out there in our classrooms who don’t.  And my ain cherubs have encountered a few of the duds along the way, as well as their fair share of people for whom I have only awe.  They perform a vital role in our society that is overlooked if not so under-valued in purely monetary terms these days.  And frankly, I couldn’t do what they can.


the problem with teachers – generally – is that they seem to think that education is about them, and them above all else.  All those years rubbing along with tinies, tweenies and teens who have perfected the art of self-absorption and egotism has had its inevitable impact.

There’s a story in today’s Scotsman about teachers’ disquiet about nascent proposals to create new super-schools.  The idea appears to be furthest down the road in my ain back yard, Dumfries and Galloway.  Not renowned as a hotbed of radicalism, the council does seem to be blazing a trail on education reform. It has already successfully piloted the cluster concept, whereby a small secondary school and its feeder primary schools have the same head teacher and consequently, a much closer way of working.  Yes, it saves money but it has kept these schools open and it appears to work.  It is now being adopted or at least, explored in other local authority areas.

But this new plan appears to be a step too far for some.  The options are to keep the four secondary schools in Dumfries but as teachers are advocating, to create integrated timetables with pupils moving between schools or to create a single super-school for S4 – S6 and four schools for S1 – S3.  A third option would be a new school for S4 – S6 with the existing schools teaching pupils from P6 onwards.

What the story doesn’t set out is the rationale behind such thinking, so let’s apply a little context, some of which the Burd knows about and some of which is indeed supposition, but based on what we know generally.

The focus for change appears to be two-fold.  Firstly, to provide for students at the upper end of the school system, one presumes more effectively.  We already know that across the country, many subjects have disappeared from the timetable because low uptake has made them unfeasible.  The proposals to create a single campus for senior pupils would appear to be an attempt to address this situation: presumably, having more senior students in one school creates the opportunity to offer more subjects and ensure that teaching staff are able to focus on supporting young people in gaining qualifications.  Greater choice, improved attainment – a potential win-win surely.

Secondly, the issue of transition from primary to secondary and what happens to boys in particular, at this crucial juncture – a number of them struggle and regress academically – is one which has exercised the Director of Education in Dumfries and Galloway.  He has been trying various, innovative ways of addressing it and should be commended for doing so.  It is entirely possible that the proposal to create schools focusing on the early years of secondary or to create a whole-school approach over these vital transition years is about addressing this issue.

So, all the options appear to be trying to fix some of the well-documented issues in Scottish education, which may or may not be more acutely prevalent in this rural area.  Of course, funding and the future sustainability of education in the region will also be in the mix.  With PFI/PPP off the menu, there is bound, too, to be an attempt to upgrade infrastructure in an affordable way.  Some of the schools are bound to be crumbling and also, not necessarily located anymore where the greatest populations of secondary school age children are.

Whatever the reasons, such willingness to find creative solutions to problems and to future-proof the provision of education in a rural area which suffers more than its fair share of de-population, particularly of young people, is to be welcomed and worked with.  Not according to the EIS which has surveyed its local membership.  Guess what?  They’re not happy.

John Dennis, EIS local association secretary, said: “Many made clear in the survey that they value being in a six-year secondary school and that their job satisfaction, their expertise, their conditions of service and their promotion prospects would all be damaged if they were to work in a burgh school under 
option two.

See?  All about them.  The weans don’t even warrant a mention.  Indeed, their preferred option of things largely staying as they are but with pupils moving across town between schools in order to access an integrated timetable (whatever that is) again suggests a lack of consideration for what is in the best interests of children and young people.  The idea of naive 12 year olds criss-crossing Dumfries in search of an education is a recipe for disaster.  The amount of time lost to teaching as weans inevitably get lost/held up/get distracted by shops/run over/delete as appropriate would be enormous.  And of course, as the cherubs age, they would get more wily at lengthening the time taken and the excuses to be made for not turning up at all.  By 17, they’d have turned it into an art form and barely be in school at all.

Of course, none of this would matter a jot to the teachers, who would of course, be safely, securely and cosily ensconced all day in the one location.  The plan is fraught with less obvious difficulties.  Whose responsibility would it be to report a child who doesn’t turn up and at what point would a child be considered missing?  How would the schools know who is absent for the day or just opting out of turning up for that one lesson?  Who would be legally responsible for the children as they made their way through town?  Would they lay on buses to transport the weans hither and thon and if so, how much would that cost?

In focusing only on their needs and interests, teachers appear to have forgotten all about the welfare and well-being of the children they owe a duty of care to.  Worse, they seem to have lost sight of being part of the solution rather than a block to change.  And if they want to be taken seriously as partners in imagining the future of education provision, then they need to start making it less “all about me” and more about ensuring that the kids are alright.


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.