Scottish education: The challenges ahead

Written by: Various | Published:
Policy scrutiny: The Scottish government at Holyrood in Edinburgh will face pressure from education unions over a number of key issues this coming academic year (Image: iStock)

The new academic year brings with it key challenges for teachers and school leaders in Scotland. We asked the general secretaries of the Educational Institute of Scotland and the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association to outline the most pressing issues facing schools this year


Larry Flanagan
General secretary, Educational Institute of Scotland

Looking ahead, at the start of a new school year in Scotland, significant challenges lie ahead for our secondary schools.

After a long decade of change, with the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence and the introduction of a new qualifications system, a period of stability and consolidation is long overdue. However, it seems unlikely that this will happen as a raft of new initiatives, policy revisions and changes have emerged once again.

The Scottish government’s Review of School Governance will have a significant impact on the way in which our schools are managed. This all-encompassing review has the potential to radically shift the long-established working arrangements between schools, local authorities, and the Scottish government.

In the initial consultation, we argued that the focus of the review should be on enhancing support for schools, teachers and pupils rather than on the pursuit of structural change. Some elements of the review, such as its ambition to support professional collaboration between schools, are to be welcomed. But caution is needed, in these financially strained times, that initiatives such as new regional collaboratives do not absorb resources away from frontline learning and teaching activity.

The EIS has been clear that local authorities must retain the role of the employer of teachers, and that all negotiations over pay and conditions must remain at a national level – both confirmed in the current proposals.

However, while the notion of empowering schools and allowing teachers to make more decisions related to their own pupils is sound in principle, questions have been raised over issues such as the impact on workload – particularly for members of senior management teams, as a result of additional responsibilities related to school budgets.

There is a clear case also for school to be more collegiate in practice and, frankly, more democratic in nature. No-one in Scotland supports the model of heroic leadership but the government’s proposals consistently echo the rhetoric of such an approach.

In common with the Governance Review, much of the work of the National Improvement Framework (NIF) is predicated on the need to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap that stubbornly persists in our schools. The EIS shares this ambition, and has been particularly active in recent years on equality work with the aim of mitigating against the impact of poverty on pupils’ school experience.

While the aims of the NIF are sound, teachers and the EIS have significant reservations over some of the methodology that has been incorporated within the framework. Specifically, the introduction of a national system of standardised assessments has sparked concerns over the potential of a return to high-stakes national testing, which would create pressure on teachers to teach to the test.

The EIS supports the aim of tackling the attainment gap, but does not believe that narrowing pupils’ learning can ever be a desirable route to raising attainment.

The introduction of new qualifications has placed significant strain on pupils and teachers alike in recent years. There were significant delays in the provision of new resources, while frequent changes in policy and guidance left many teachers struggling to ensure that pupils were not disadvantaged.

Since the introduction of the new qualifications, the workload associated with assessments in the senior phase has been a major issue for pupils and teachers alike. Following a successful campaign of industrial action short of strike by the EIS, the Scottish government instructed the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) that mandatory unit assessments should be removed from National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher qualifications. The first phase of these changes, at National 5, will be implemented in the coming session and should see a significant workload reduction for teachers and a lessening of the assessment regime for students.

Staffroom discontent remains however, as once again the detailed changes have been notified late to schools, leaving teachers to sort out implementation. With Education Scotland again being posted as missing, in terms of support for schools, the new qualifications still sits high on the list of drivers of low morale among teachers. Frankly, goodwill in this area has run dry and the promised reductions in workload need to be delivered by both the Scottish government and the SQA.

New qualifications is one of a number of factors which have combined to increase the workload pressures on teachers to excessive levels. While teacher numbers have held steady for the past few years, as the result of negotiated agreements, there has been a decline of around 4,000 teaching posts since the peak a decade ago. This overall decline in the number of teachers, coupled with the on-going process of curricular and qualifications change, has piled ever more workload on teachers in our schools.

An EIS survey in June revealed that more than 80 per cent of teachers felt their workload had increased over the past year, despite the positive statements of the depute first minister about tackling bureaucracy and addressing excessive workload. Scotland’s teachers need Mr Swinney’s rhetoric to become a reality for them in the classroom.

Recruitment challenges have emerged in schools across Scotland, and are particularly acute in certain parts of the country and in specific subject areas. These must be addressed to ensure that sufficient numbers of new teachers are coming into the system, and to keep workload pressures to a more manageable level.

Key to addressing the growing recruitment challenge is the need for a firm commitment to improving teachers’ pay, which has been declining over the past decade. While the UK government seems to have shamefully decided to maintain the crippling pay cap on public sector employees, there have been some encouraging signs that the Scottish government is set to remove the pay cap in Scotland. The EIS is clear that Scotland’s teachers need and deserve a fair pay rise. If we are to attract highly qualified graduates to the teaching profession, they must be paid appropriately and in line with other comparable graduate professions. This year’s pay settlement may well be the litmus test for just how much Scotland’s teachers are genuinely valued by our political class.


Seamus Searson
General secretary, Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association

The SSTA agreed when the government stated that “Scotland has a good education system with great schools and teachers”.

When the Governance Review was announced the SSTA argued for a process of review followed by improvements rather than major structural change. The SSTA believed that structural change would only divert energies and resources away from the main challenge of “closing the attainment gap”.

Unfortunately the review did not include the people and the structures in the school that support teaching and learning. We believe that the government needed to have placed the pupil-teacher relationship at the centre – this relationship and how we best support it is the paramount consideration. Structure is only important insofar as they support and nurture teaching and learning in the pupil-teacher relationship.

Education Governance: Next steps – empowering our teachers, parents and communities to deliver excellence and equity for our children was published in June and set a direction of travel that will challenge the system but will also have major implications for the school workforce and how schools operate.

There will need to be a complete change of culture within Scottish schools and the education bodies to meet this challenge. But introducing change when Scotland is facing a deepening crisis in retaining and recruiting teachers and headteachers in its schools will make the process more difficult.

The government needs to acknowledge that teachers working conditions and remuneration have failed to keep pace with the rapidly changing education environment and action needs to be taken to solve these problems.

As a consequence teaching in Scotland is increasingly perceived as an unattractive profession with an impossible workload demand, restricted career path and an uncompetitive salary scale. Addressing the structure of schools and its workforce are essential elements in the government’s challenge to close the attainment gap.

Teachers and their unions have consistently argued for additional resources and a reduction in the workload demands placed upon teachers. This should be interpreted as teachers needing more time. Teachers do not have enough time to do the things that they need to do. Teachers are unable to devote their valuable time for teaching as too much time of their time is spent on bureaucracy created by the system, producing materials for others. Teachers need time and time needs to be found.

The demand for more collaboration of schools, closer working of local authorities, and the promotion of regional structures will spread responsibility for education more widely and particularly into schools.

The proposal for a new teacher career structure will mean that the school workforce will not be the property of the school or the local authorities but of the education system. This could be an opportunity to redress the balance and value the excellent contribution teachers have made for many years.

The prospect of a national and flexible education system has the potential to reinvigorate the teaching profession with retention rather than recruitment as the priority. The need to develop and motivate the teacher workforce cannot be underestimated.

This demand for collaboration could create a culture of working together. This could mean that teachers will be crossing in and out of schools, local authorities and across the education system.

However, the document, by placing a greater responsibility and emphasis upon the autonomy of the headteacher with less control of the teaching staff, will create a conflict and a barrier to collaboration. The prospect of further delegation of responsibilities and funding to headteachers in schools will only worsen the headteacher recruitment crisis. Headteachers want to focus on leading learning and do not need to be forced into spending more time on bureaucracy and administration.

There will be an expectation placed upon the headteacher to ensure that their teachers, and not just the pupils, reach their full potential and make a major contribution to the education system. Headteachers will need to ensure there is time for teachers to focus upon what needs to be done, time to reflect, time for professional development, time to engage with colleagues locally and nationally. The headteacher should relish the change in responsibility away from managing staff but nurturing and developing the education workforce of the future.

To create this teacher time every school would need more teachers. A simple estimate without changing existing class sizes, schools would need at least 25 per cent more teachers. Therefore, a school with 60 teachers would need a teaching compliment of 80 teachers. This should bring to an end the current practice of local authorities providing the minimum number of teachers all working to the maximum contracted 22.5 hours.

The role of local authorities cannot be reduced as a consequence of the review, as they have the ability to bring together all the local services to support pupils and their families in their journey through school. The local authority should also play an important part in removing burdens and obstacles from teachers and headteachers and allow them to exert all their energies on teaching and learning.

As we embark on a potentially exciting period in education, the government cannot expect to bring about these changes without major investment in all areas of the education system. The government needs to be prepared to fund its ambitious plan to enhance the teaching profession and give teachers time to teach if it is meet its challenge of closing the attainment gap.


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