A tough year ahead

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Larry Flanagan has recently been appointed general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, Scotland's largest teaching union, with members across all education sectors. Former headteacher Alex Wood asks him about the year ahead.

Alex: What does 2012/13 hold for Scottish teachers?

Larry: I would love to be able to respond positively to that question and talk about achieving some cherished goals such as class size reductions, but as most teachers will recognise the forthcoming session will be yet another challenging year. The fight on pensions will intensify as the UK government continues its cash grab from teachers’ pockets. We are in discussion with Scottish government on the details of the pension scheme; so far they have offered sympathy but little else – that will have to change. We also have workload issues around Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), McCormac, Donaldson, and next year’s salary negotiations – so it will be a busy and potentially fractious period.

Alex: There’s also substantial unhappiness in many secondary schools over the abandonment of traditional departments and the introduction of faculties.

Larry: The development of faculties has been largely a cost-saving agenda on the part of local government, accompanied by a mind-set which embraces managerialist approaches to leadership. At the start of the process jokes used to be made about being faculty head of the second floor or the annexe building, but it’s not funny anymore because that’s become too close to reality. 

Notwithstanding CfE’s focus on interdisciplinary learning, subjects rightly remain the basis of organisation in secondary schools and the reason why there are eight points on the principal teacher salary scale is to recognise that subject departments can vary in size from the small two-person unit to a larger nine or 10-person department. I think that generally speaking the creation of faculties has been a retrograde step in our secondary schools.

Alex: “The major debates in Scottish education are around CfE. Other unions and several leading educationalists have taken a decidedly hostile position, but the EIS has been seen as supportive of the broad aims of CfE.

Larry: Yes, absolutely. Among the aims of CfE were the recognition of the professional status and key role of the classroom teacher, a move away from the obsession with “targets, tables and testing”, and a commitment to a central role for creativity in the curriculum. There is, of course, a major debate as to how well such aims are being realised and it is simply a fact that this is the most under-resourced curriculum development of recent times. 

Teachers, therefore, have rightly been concerned about the consequent workload implications, and increasingly frustrated as government, both local and national, seem to take their goodwill for granted. The issue is whether others – Scottish government, COSLA (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities), Education Scotland, the Scottish Qualifications Authority, local directorates – remain committed to realising the original aims of the programme or whether, in the current financial context, they will simply revert to managerial type.

Alex: I’ve heard a lot of enthusiastic comments on CfE from primary staff. Is there a major difference between how primary teachers and secondary teachers view CfE?

Larry: It’s wrong to suggest that in primaries everything is running smoothly. Some of the original enthusiasm of primary teachers has been curtailed by evidence of increasingly bureaucratic approaches by local authorities, and even some school management teams, which are throttling the life out of CfE – excessive forward planning for example or ludicrously long reports. We have a meeting shortly with Education Scotland to discuss some of these issues. It’s probably true, however, to say that initially primary teachers were more comfortable with key aspects of CfE, especially the move away from five to 14 testing.

Secondary schools have been heavily influenced in their approaches by the dominance of qualifications as a benchmark tool for assessing alleged effectiveness. There was, I think, a communications failure in terms of convincing many secondary teachers about the merits of new pedagogies and this wasn’t helped by some “experts” dismissing the role of subject specialisms. 

The proposed changes to qualifications only served to confuse matters further and many very effective teachers felt that suddenly they were being told they had been doing it all wrong. The EIS had argued for the retention and reinvigoration of Standard Grade, for example, to avoid too much change at once but the then cabinet secretary took the unilateral decision to axe it.

I would argue that in terms of the aims of CfE there is support from primary and secondary teachers, and indeed nursery teachers also, but their experience of its implementation and the context of the changes have been different in significant areas.

Alex: What about the implementation of CfE and the timescales for introduction?

Larry: Realisation of CfE in practice is a long-term project; it’s about changing teaching and learning in our schools. We are still caught up, in too many areas, in the “endless audit”, which really reveals management insecurities and we are certainly a long way off the required professional trust in the teacher that lies at the heart of CfE.

In secondaries, as soon 2013/14 was established as the date for the introduction of the new qualifications, a timeline took hold and people, including the cabinet secretary, started talking about a roll-out of CfE, starting in S1 and progressing towards that date. But if anyone thinks that CfE will have been implemented just because the new qualifications are realised on time, then they misunderstand the real nature of the changes sought.

Alex: The first national teachers’ strike since the 1980s has been over pensions. There is a simmering anger on this issue.

Larry: We think that Scottish teachers deserve a fair deal on pensions. The idea that teachers may be forced to stay in the classroom until they are 68, in order to achieve their full pension, is frightening in its lack of understanding about the stresses associated with the profession. 

We need more than sympathy from Scottish government, however. They need to stand up to the bullying from the Treasury and find a Scottish solution to this issue. That will mean finding additional finance.

We are also calling on all Scottish MSPs to reject any further increases in contribution rates, which are simply an additional tax on teachers. If the UK government needs to increase tax income they should start taxing the bankers and spivs who created this crisis.

Alex: The independence issue will dominate Scottish public life for the next two years. Will the EIS take a position on the referendum?

Larry: We made clear in our submission to the Scottish government’s recent consultation that we wouldn’t be taking a position for or against independence, and that was in recognition of the fact that within our own membership we have a full range of political views. We also said, however, that we are in favour of the fullest possible debate on the options before us and certainly we will be asking both campaigns to spell out what they see as the consequences for education of their respective platforms. So we will be part of the debate but we’ll leave it to individuals to make the big decision.

  • Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. Prior to his recent retirement he was headteacher of Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh. He is currently an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University and is a SecEd columnist and editorial board member.




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