Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Ross Martin: How our teachers became a class apart

Published in the Scotsman, 26/5/2011

Reviews, deals, fudges and poisoned chalices, the history of how we run our schools is an unedifying series of mistakes.

As we await the outcome of the McCormac review into the McCrone deal for teachers that was a result of a McConnell fudge after he had been handed a poisoned chalice by McLeish, one is entitled to wonder in the end what many a Mc will Mac.

If this bewildering array of political and professorial involvement in shaping Scotland's teaching profession was subject to external assessment, the results would make grim reading indeed. A 23 per cent pay hike was conceded in a classic short-term political fix, achieving nothing noticeable in terms of improvement to either the quality of the learning experience or the performance of our pupils.

In fact, many would argue, as the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (CoSLA) appears to have done in its evidence to this latest McCormac review, that the teaching profession has gone backwards. Clock-watching in the classroom has become the norm as part of the teaching unions' precious 35-hour week. Meanwhile, the dinosaur leaderships spend their time squabbling in the staffrooms over who is the most macho, as the world moves on around them.

Our schools need fresh ideas, an energetic impetus. They need to be given the confidence to innovate, the freedom to design and deliver the Curriculum for Excellence. They need to analyse their own performance, compare it with others operating in similar circumstances and develop ways in which to address identified shortcomings. They need to strengthen links with communities, reflect the changing nature of their environment and encourage far greater participation from parents and the wider public too.

When teaching unions complain about workload, how can they seriously suggest that no-one else is qualified to impart professional knowledge, to transfer time-served skills or to support educational development of young people? When rural communities campaign against school closures, why aren't they encouraged and enabled to take a more active role in the running of their school? The Scottish school system is broken, and after more than ten years of fiddling, it's time our parliament set about fixing it.

Here are a few items for the new intake of MSPs to consider for inclusion in the policy curriculum, many tried and tested either here at home or in other, more successful, school systems abroad.

Let's start with a change the teaching unions actually agree with - fewer education authorities. It is simply not possible to justify separate authorities across Ayrshire, or Dunbartonshire or Renfrewshire, or indeed in many other parts of the country where recognised community boundaries were cut not from an educational perspective but as part of an earlier, equally unsuccessful political fix.

Next, as the higher education sector faces an unprecedented funding challenge, can we really justify the treading of water, re-teaching and duplication, of first-year university and sixth-year school? Of course not, one of them has to go.

The school calendar is a complicated farce, with last month demonstrating beyond reasonable doubt that whoever or whatever it was designed for, it certainly wasn't hard-working pupils or their parents. In most parts of Scotland, pupils spent a maximum of seven days in school in April. We desperately need to move towards four equal terms of ten weeks.

This simple switch has huge potential for enriching the educational experience of our youngsters, even more so if the so-called asymmetric week is adopted, where Wednesday afternoons are designated for a wide range of supporting activities. Sports, arts, drama, outdoor education, community participation, swimming lessons, learning about road safety, healthy living, preparing for international exchanges, all this and much more are possible.

In addition, and in order to ensure that the educational experience is well grounded, we need to engage a far wider cross-section of the community, enabling accountants, architects, civil and electrical engineers, fashion and graphic designers, lawyers, scientists and planners to share their professional experience and act as role models for our youngsters, exciting them about the world in which they work.

Either on the "asymmetric afternoon", or elsewhere in a generally more accessible timetable, ten-week blocks of professional practice or tutoring in the trades should become the norm for Scotland's schools. Scotland's got talent, so how can our schools harness it? Associate teacher status could easily be arranged, ticking all the teaching quality boxes of the General Teaching Council and the pupil safety issues of Disclosure Scotland.

Whilst we are on the subject of community involvement, when will a rural school be run by its parent body with support from its education authority, instead of the other way round? There are plenty of successful models for operating key public services, including co-ops, social enterprises and mutuals. Why should our schools be any different?

As we see the move towards greater community control of the social and economic issues that matter locally, for example football fans owning their clubs, food-co-ops developing local production, the generation of significant financial benefits for communities through wind farm ownership, the lack of parental involvement in our school system appears all the more anachronistic.

As regards wider parental involvement, bring back the school boards. Originally conceived as vehicles for opting out, these dedicated groups of parents, teachers and co-opted members of the community were actually beginning to perform a valuable function, especially in Scotland's towns, strengthening the traditionally weak link between many schools and the communities they seek to serve.

School boards were abolished in that puerile political atmosphere that has hung over our parliament like an Icelandic ash cloud, darkening the atmosphere and closing MSPs' minds to clear, blue sky thinking. They were dumped not because they were a bad idea but because they were a Tory idea. Simples.

Consigned to the classroom wastepaper basket, along with league tables, school boards were the last real hope for parental involvement in the teaching and learning programme. Bring them back, dust them down, re-design them to each serve a cluster - a single secondary and its associated primary schools.

League tables, also abolished, were misleading and practically useless as indicators of performance. We have a perfectly acceptable, easily understood, robust alternative that has been hidden from public view for far too long. Clumsily entitled the School Characteristic Index, it allows us all to compare and contrast the performance of your local school with others of a similar size, operating in similar circumstances on similar budgets. Equally, the Relative Ratings metric is an invaluable tool that can be used to determine faculty, department or even individual teacher success in adding value to a pupil's performance. Why don't we publish this invaluable information for parents?

Just as the electorate has an uncanny ability to ensure its collective will is translated into the colour of government, almost regardless of the electoral system, so do parents have that sixth sense of how to create a good school. First on any parent's list, backed up by sound educational research, are truly comprehensive catchment areas. This beats all other factors, including shiny new buildings and smaller class sizes, hands down.

This is especially important in our cities, where high schools such as my alma mater in Wester Hailes in Edinburgh have become sink schools, stripped of the enthusiastic learners who have aspirational, mobile parents. Schools, like the communities they serve, perform best with a well-balanced parent and pupil body that is part of a comprehensive catchment area.

So let's not kid ourselves that it is anything other than this critical factor that enables denominational secondary schools to so often outperform their mainstream neighbours.

Roman Catholic schools have other advantages, such as many of their pupils being bussed in relative comfort to school each day. They also operate a quasi-selective entrance system and can more easily expel unruly pupils, sending them to their local high school.

It is, however, the comprehensive mix of their catchment areas that set them aside from the majority of Scotland's struggling secondary schools.

Which brings us neatly to the final suggestion, sin bins. Parliamentarians who have been behaving badly are expelled from the chamber whilst it is expected that our more energetic pupils are kept in the classroom. Discuss.

Ross is the CSPP policy director.


  1. What about bringing the ability to fire teachers that do not perform in line with most other indsutries and professions? Why is this always the elephant in the room? You make many good points but this one initiative would directly and indirectly address many of the issues you highlight.

  2. thought provoking as always Ross ! Agree strongly with your thoughts.

  3. This is a refreshing commentary and identifies potential short term quick fixes to change the direction of our education system for the better. A key factor holding back education has been its politisation in the post war period and education taking a back seat to political priorities. In 2007 the Institution of Education Sciences Report 'Trends in International Mathematics and Science' revealed that Scotland was below the international average and about 20% behind far eastern countries such as Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore. Isn't it time for the government take a step backwards out of the classroom and to charge educational professionals with restoring Scotland's place in the world's rankings to where it was in the past. Setting this as the target unencumbered by day to day political involvement may lift eyes above the political issues which have caused the quality of our education to be compromised.

  4. Right on Ross.The teaching profession cannot continue to be held back by the unimaginative , mundane and mildewed who act as prison warders to the many creative and dynamic educational professionals in our schools. They need help to break out.We wouldn't let someone fly a plane load of passengers if we thought they were incompetent even if they produced their licence to do so.Why should we let someone who is incompetent have responsibility for the future of children by dint of the piece of paper which says they are a teacher. Teaching has to be much more than a certificate. At the root of the problem is the way we rear teachers like battery hens.Nursery/Primary/Secondary/University and out they pop. It is all far too academic.Teacher
    training should focus on Child Development . There should be higher order skills requirements in Communication ; Relationships ; Staff/Pupil Interaction /Intervention to scaffold learning (not hanging the weans oot tae dry).Shadow placements with Social Work and Health colleagues should be compulsory as should orientation inductions to the localities in which pupils live. We can't bring about change unless we break the invisible cord of academic status , snobbery and superiority which still exists. And it is our fault that we have allowed it to be so because we may get a row from the teacher .Haven't we been taught well .

    Danny McCafferty

  5. Thanks for all your comments. I can't speak for Ross or anyone else at the Centre, but the ability to remove underperforming teachers is a major issue and obstacle to change. More often than not, it heaps more pressure on the existing teachers who are doing a good job.


  6. Likewise, the overt politicisation of our public services is entirely detrimental to successful outcomes. Education, in this respect, is very much in line with the rest of UK public services.

    Secondly, the way in which we produce teachers today isn't fit for purpose. The views of Lindsay Patterson at Edinbrugh Uni are illustrative in this regard.

    And lastly, we often look to Nordic countries with awe and wonderment. Why do they produce exellent teachers? One very important factor, amongst all the socio-cultural conditions, is down to entrance requirements. They only recruit the very best and brightest to teach their kids, and pay them accordingly for it.

    Incentives matter.

  7. The firing of incompetent teachers, the hiring of ones with great potential and the retention and reward of really great teachers is indeed critical.

    We dont do any of it terribly well, with real patchy performance across Scotland.

    Furthermore, our ability to identify and appoint quality leaders is severely restricted by bog standard interview and assessment techniques, often run by untrained officers and members.

    Ross Martin

  8. A very interesting starter paper; some suggestions absolutely on the button, and some well worthy of further debate. One or two quick points

    Are Parent Councils really so much less effective than School Boards (given that the main difference was the removal of teacher representatives)?

    The overlap between S6 and University first year is clear for all to see, but it's worth remembering that not all degree courses duplicate school subjects. What is well worth exploring is the way in which Schools, Further Education and Higher Education could integrate, allowing young people to attend their local college after school education for one or two years to begin their degree work, moving on to university for Advanced/Honours courses. That would play to all sectors' strengths - schools would release pupils after Higher Grades (be that S5 or S6), FE being local would mean students could stay at home for longer, FE is much better at retaining and motivating teenagers than the university sector (compare the drop-out rates) and universities could concentrate on advanced courses and research.

    I do think it a pity that Ross should have chosen to open with a dig at teachers' clock watching and the 35 hour week. He should look at any primary school teachers' car park at 8am or 5pm. As the spouse of a secondary English teacher and the father of a Primary teacher seeing both working after 10pm is a common occurrence. I worked in education both pre- and post-McCrone. I have no doubt that there are some who do the minimum but I am utterly convinced that where schools succeed and thrive they do so on the efforts of those for whom a 35-hour week is a dream rather than a reality. Schools would grind to a halt if teachers worked to that rule.

  9. Re Parent Councils, please refer to the Scotsman letters page