Published in the Scotsman, 14/9/11
Ok, perhaps many a Mc does a Mac make after all. Or at least one would be inclined to believe so given the schoolboy error of Scottish Labour's aspirant leader Ken Macintosh, misspelling Professor Gerry McCormac's name on their party press release while responding to his report into the future of teaching in Scotland's schools.
Another Mc, the fabulous character of Grange Hill's Mrs McCluskey, wouldn't have been impressed. Easy to mix up all these Macs and Mcs, given that the professor and his team were reviewing the impact of the McCrone report, originally commissioned by Jack McConnell under the direction of Henry McLeish.
In attacking key aspects of the review, the Labour Party rightly focuses on teacher numbers, but should be sent to the back of the class for their terrible line that "Teachers should be left to teach, not dish out school dinners or repair computers".
The review does not even come close to suggesting a change to teachers' conditions that would have them engaged in any activity other than teaching, or supporting pupil learning with other tasks. So, what about the meat of the McCormac review? Why was it necessary, and what does it actually say? Some time ago now everyone involved in teaching agreed that pay had fallen way behind many other professions, of equal or lesser worth to society. After more than a decade of ultimately fruitless negotiation, the Scottish Government established the McCrone review to sort out the squabbling.
Now, leave aside the fact that the prequel to McCrone, timeously entitled the "Millennium Review", had actually secured the support of the teaching union's negotiating committee before being junked without a ballot of the memberships.
Also ignore the fact that this earlier review included a range of reforms to the profession designed to "recruit, reward and retain" quality teachers, e.g. the inclusion of a sabbatical year for key members in the staff room and the integration of extra-curricular support such as coaching school sports teams into the standard public sector school teacher's contract.
The eventual McCrone deal was a classic political fix. McConnell had been handed the poisoned chalice of avoiding looming disruption in Scotland's schools by first minister McLeish. They rushed to sign a deal that gave everything and got nothing in return.
At a cost of around one and a half tram sets, that's £1.3 billion in ordinary money, teachers gained their rightful pay reward, but everyone else involved suffered as a result.
First to go were the after-school clubs, emptying bored teenagers on to the streets. Then parents' evenings were cut back as these often time-hungry sessions didn't quite fit into the box provided in "non-teaching time". Then followed Saturday morning sports coaching and many other aspects of what was previously seen as a normal working week, in the 40 that constitute a school year.
This was all part of a depressing attitudinal shift from one with high professional standards towards a clock-watching mentality more akin to manual workers on poverty pay. Far from introducing flexibility, the 35-hour week, a core element of the McCrone settlement, has conditioned teachers, and especially their unions, into a way of working that doesn't come close to be described as professional, never mind fit for the 21st century, the title on the McCrone tin.
Even more damning, standards in Scotland's schools did not improve. As the McCormac Review starkly puts it, teachers' pay and conditions need to "strengthen the quality of teaching and leadership" in Scotland's schools, because they have not been. In other words, we paid an awful lot of cash for little, if any, improvement in the classroom experience for a generation of pupils. This deficit needs to be addressed.
The McCormac review rightly recommends a more flexible approach, enabling teachers to lead their own profession, to develop, monitor and continuously improve standards. It calls for a "reinvigorated professionalism" with "all teachers embracing professional obligations which go beyond that which can or should be embodied in a contract". In other words, let teachers teach, and organise themselves in a manner which "is in the best interests of young people".
Patently, this is not the case right now. The school year, based upon the agrarian calendar is not fit for last century, never mind this one. Of course, the report doesn't deal with this wider issue, as it was not in its remit to do so. However, if we are indeed to move towards a system and structure which is in the best interests of young people, and by extension their parents, then surely a move to four equal terms of ten weeks each is inevitable?
As well as allowing for much easier planning of the curriculum, and all other aspects of delivering a quality learning programme, such a move would also open up our schools to a wide range of external influences, the kind of which McCormac rightly promotes. The current restrictive practice of allowing only GTC registered teachers in front of a class "risks denying access to potentially valuable experiences for children and young people".
The current practice is a dereliction of duty.
A simplified school calendar, brought into line with the way in which many of us organise our working lives, around the four financial quarters of the year, would make it so much easier for other professions to engage with the education of our children. Professions and trades have so much to offer both in terms of the learning experience and as role models for our young people; artists and architects, engineers and electricians, journalists and joiners, planners and plumbers… all have a part to play.
The use of other professions would have another benefit, a potential reduction in class contact time. On the importance of this issue I wholeheartedly agree with the teaching unions. Teachers cannot be expected to perform at their very best across a crowded teaching timetable and this is one way in which to take some of the pressure off. Of course, another is to reshape the school week.
In this age of asymmetrical federalism, whichever version (devo-max or indie-lite) we vote for, the asymmetric week is surely worth a mention. Why? Because it works.
Moving to one half-day, by slightly increasing the length of the other four teaching days, is something which we know improves both teaching quality and school standards. When we introduced this in West Lothian in the 1990s it allowed an enrichment of the education programme with a wide range of other activities, such as sports, arts, crafts, music and outdoor education on that half day, supporting an overall improvement in all measurable educational outcomes.
Another aspect which McCormac promotes in seeking to bring teaching into the real world, recognising the budgetary pressure which we all face, is to put a stop to the dubious political initiative of smaller class sizes. The report recognises that there is scant evidence to demonstrate any benefit from marginal reductions in class sizes and that these nationally driven targets set by the SNP, before they knew they would win an outright majority in the parliament, "should not be pursued at the expense of overall teacher quality".
Above all, however, and this is a theme that runs through the McCormac review, local circumstances must be allowed to shape the way in which Scotland's schools are organised and run. Not all schools are the same - and neither they should be. Some decisions are appropriate for local authority level, others for schools themselves, but teaching as a profession must take control and drive up standards for all.
• Ross Martin is the policy director of CSPP and a former CoSLA Education Convener who was involved in the pre-McCrone negotiations.