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.


Better Together already lacks reasons to persuade us to stay

Last week, Better Together – the no campaign that isn’t – launched.  I waited for the analysis, the acres of print picking apart every sentence and nuance and then putting it all back together again in a form that suits the journalists.  But there was very little, except for in the Scotsman for whom keeping the referendum in the news has become an obsession.  Whether we like it or not.

Either the journalists were largely content with the launch’s achievements or – after two hours of hearing earnest testimony from ordinary people – they were bored into submission.

But apart from a nice speech from Alistair Darling – and let’s not be churlish, it was a good speech – there was nothing really to report.  It’s not even clear who’s leading this charabanc.  Darling yes, but Johann Lamont was there too.  Apparently, Annabel Goldie and Charles Kennedy represent the other parties, but Ruth Davidson and Willie Rennie appeared in some of the photos.  Kezia Dugdale, Labour’s fresh faced Lothians MSP, was given a starring role interviewing some of the ordinary people who believe in the Union, so she too merited a few lines.  A cast of thousands might seem like a strength, though beware the old maxim – never mind the quality, feel the width.

The leaflet produced to accompany the launch purports to spell out how we are Better Together.  But the retreaded statements offer nothing new, come precariously close to sare-mongering and are specious nonsense.  Yes, there are thousands of Scots employed in UK government roles, but a fully independent Scottish government would need these jobs.  Indeed, there would be more government jobs available to Scots than are currently.  In any event, with the ConDems at the helm, by the time we get to 2014, there could be far fewer of these folk in government/public sector jobs thanks to their austerity policies.

There were other vacuous claims in the leaflet but there isn’t a version on the threadbare website to help me recall what they were.  Never mind, if I tell my friends about Better Together, I can have a free badge.  Given that it doesn’t specify that I say nice things, I expect mine in the post.  Or do blog readers not count?

If YesScotland seemed not to have all its ducks in a row when it launched, then Better Together appears not to have rounded its ducks up yet.   I’m all for plain language and making things easy for everyone to understand, but I think we need a little more intellectual rigour than “times are really tough at home and really turbulent internationally“.  Nor do I think the fact that “we have Embassies around the world” will turn out to be a deal-clincher.

For all the claims that there is a positive case to be made for staying in the UK, Better Together has, so far, done very little to propose it, other than trot out the same tired, old scaremongering arguments, subtly disguised as reasons.  They are trying to be positive but they just can’t help themselves.

Nor were they helped by the Prime Minister, David Cameron.  Just as Alistair Darling donned his cloak of darkness to opine that independence represented a “one way ticket to send our children to a deeply uncertain destination” (an accompanying shiver was obligatory), up pops the PM in London to set out his stall for more welfare reform.

The ink is not yet dry on the last lot, and very little of it has actually been implemented.  Already, though, the cultural shift has started with disabled people, with very real and genuine conditions which limit their ability to work without support, are being hounded off their benefits.  Lone parents are being told – despite there being no law yet in force – that unless they agree to work-related activity, their benefits will be stopped.   Citizens Advice Bureaux and specialist helplines are chokka with people burnishing threatening letters from DWP.

Yet, the big changes have still to come.  Helpfully – for the Yes Scotland campaign – they will hit some time in early 2014.  No matter, the PM is rolling up his sleeves and shoring up the core support in the marginal seats in middle England by promising more.  Vulnerable people are, after all, an easy target – much easier than bankers and tax avoiders.

Key among his proposals is a suggestion that regional benefit levels could be set, enabling the UK government to provide a lesser support payment to a family with a disabled child in Scotland than in the South East of England, justifiable on the grounds of higher living costs there and ignoring completely the fact that such families have higher living costs more generally.

But Better Together insists that our interdependence is one key reason why we are stronger in the United Kingdom.  Shame no one told the Prime Minister then.

And herein lies the anti-independence campaign’s biggest problem.  With hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts still to come, with austerity on the menu for the foreseeable future, with a scale of welfare reform likely to touch every single household and family in Scotland, and with a UK Government determined to dismantle all that we hold dear across these islands, it will become increasingly difficult to state with any authority that we really are better together.

Just as we need cogent reasons to vote to go, we will also need persuasive arguments to stay.  The latter might be in short supply by autumn 2014.

A week is a long time at the Scotsman

Such has been the tumult in recent weeks at The Scotsman Publications Ltd (TSPL), it is remarkable that a paper has made it out the door every day.  The changes have not, though, been confined to the Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and Edinburgh Evening News, but extend to all Johnston press holdings.

Ashley Highfield, appointed Chief Executive of Johnston Press in July, has set out his strategy for survival and it involves even more tumult and upheaval.

First step has been to flatten the management structure.  February saw the first stirrings of this with senior executives of parts of the holdings put on gardening leave and ultimately, made redundant.  At the same time, the MD of TSPL, Andrew Richardson, was appointed MD of all the Johnston Press holdings in Scotland.  This process culminated in the removal of John McLellan from his role as Editor-in-Chief of the Scotsman and its sister papers, and cue a public outpouring of indignation and sentiment (did John McLellan ever know how much his staff loved him so?!) from the papers’ journalists.  Incidentally, McLellan was one of three senior executives to go.

Eyebrows might have been raised by many at the Scotsman winning Newspaper of the Year at the Scottish Press Awards last week, but the newspaper family is a sentimental one. This award was the equivalent of a group hug, a solidarity gesture and as a kind of good luck charm to prevent the rot extending to others.

Some of the other changes coming won’t actually affect the Scotsman or Scotland on Sunday.  Johnston press is redesigning and relaunching most of the group’s newspapers.  I’m not a newspaper person but this sounds like maximising output from the content system invested in a while ago, by creating templates and sharing non-local content across titles more efficiently. It also means creating a single unit price for similar products.  Such harmonisation is long overdue and will raise the profit margins overnight on some publications.  The pilot area is the North of England where some dailies will also become weekly papers.

Implementation of the digital strategy will surely involve TSPL.  Highfield aims to grow audiences (not readers, note) by being “local, social and mobile”.  There will be more ipad apps for example, and mobile content to reach a younger generation currently bypassing newspapers for news.  This strategy will also create vertical content businesses, grouping content by genre (football, gardening etc) so that it can be accessed in one place.  Frankly, some of this is so basic in marketing terms, it’s remarkable that it hasn’t happened yet.

Clearly, once this process is complete, more jobs, particularly at editorial level will go.  You don’t need individual editors for newsprint and digital versions of every local paper, especially when the design and production processes are shared.  Traditionalists with inky fingers may despair but it is the way of the future.

There is also comfort to be had in that this is a strategy for growth.  It is about maximising profit, cutting costs and increasing revenue, while investing to reach wider audiences.  The crucial link in the chain is content.  More journalism, not less should result, but it will be different journalism.  All this might be bringing some at TSPL out in hives, but they would do well to get with the programme and work to put their papers ahead of the change process.

Kenneth Roy at the Scottish Review might envision a back to the future approach to rejuvenate the Scotsman, but such nostalgia is unhelpful.  The newspaper industry in Scotland and elsewhere must change or die.  What Highfield is setting out represents a major shift in culture, one that has largely been resisted by the industry in Scotland.  Where Roy is right, though, is that the Scotsman (to a lesser extent, Scotland on Sunday) has lost its way, in terms of its purpose and its direction.  Politically, its editorial line has become increasingly brittle:  how else to explain the contest to produce an independence-bashing front page splash daily?

Being so out of step with the political zeitgeist overshadows the fact that actually, the paper is producing outstanding comment and analysis on political and public issues.  The range of voices provided daily is impressive and has become essential reading for the burd.  It also masks the rest of the newspaper’s strengths – decent domestic and international news coverage coupled with innovative and solid lifestyle, sport and other content.  What is missing is a sense that the Scotsman is happy with its place in our world  – resolving this, so that it and Scotland on Sunday better reflect the political mood of the nation, is vital if Highfield’s audience growth strategy is to be realised.

Highfield is a businessman operating in a media universe: he can only do so much to fight for the survival of Johnston Press, and in particular TSPL.  This is only the start, not the end of the process of change.  Sadly, there will be more jobs going, but there is also the opportunity to create new jobs.  And if those journalists currently employed at TSPL want to have a future, they need to get their heads around the changes coming and fast.  Best of all, they need to work with their company to deliver.  No matter how many platforms, templates and audiences, the key to success is still content:  “brands are nothing without content, content is nothing without investment” noted Bill Jamieson sagely at the Scottish Press Awards.

He also reminded (to a standing ovation apparently) the assembled throng that “words are our gift, words are the mission of our life“.  Such a noble sentiment, though, is worthless without places to lay those words nor readers to savour them.