School report – progress possible

During the election, education was centre stage in terms of manifesto commitments to ‘close the attainment gap’, ‘improve standards’ and, even to increase funding, in one way or another. Whist welcome, the EIS cautioned against creating a narrative of failure around Scottish education simply to score political points.

There remain significant challenges facing schools and colleges (and universities) but we are building on significant success in our system. Even a cursory review of some of the international commentary on Scottish education reveals its inclusive nature, commitment to social justice, high professional standards of teachers, and commitment to career long professional development building on a highly respected induction programme. All recognised and celebrated by significant voices. This success should be the starting point for policy development.

Intense focus is correctly placed on closing the attainment gap – an aspiration almost universally shared by politicians, certainly one which the First Minister (FM) embraced, and an agenda in which teacher unions such as the EIS are firmly engaged.

But if it was as simple as wishing it, we’d be there already for the challenge of overcoming the impact of poverty on educational attainment is a deep and complex one. Schools make a difference but action in the classroom, in isolation, has limited impact. Government needs to simultaneously address poverty at source. And, a danger exists that in wishing to demonstrate progress, it looks at short-term approaches which create the illusion of action but which fail to address the manifest issues.

National assessment is a case in point. The FM said she’s interested in ‘what works’. We know national testing doesn’t work – look at SATS in England, the US’s now abandoned No Child Left Behind (aka No child left untested) and the OECD report on Scotland which cautions against aspects of nationalised standardised testing.

What is proposed in the new National Improvement Framework does not constitute high stakes national testing, thanks in part to the EIS campaign against such an approach, although the nuance is often lost on journalists and commentators.

The potential direction of travel is ominous, however. We see this echoed in the FM’s softer comments about ‘Teach First’ – an accelerated route into teaching for high flying academics, avoiding the need to become a qualified teacher. This will fundamentally undermine our world renowned induction programme and the General Teaching Council. In England, ‘Teach First’ and academisation combined to undermine the teaching profession, leading to the current crisis around recruitment and retention.

The FM has said she’s ‘not ideological’ about these matters but she should be. These aren’t incidental developments for they are part of the Global Education Reform Movement, the agenda Michael Gove and his successors so damagingly pursued and the drive to privatise public education (which is globally worth $50bn).

In Scotland, we have a free public sector education system, democratically controlled by local and national government, and built upon a comprehensive model of entitlement and inclusiveness. We should fight to protect these characteristics – not succumb to the vacuous vanity of being seen to do something different for the sake of it.

The SNP manifesto mentioned ‘regionalisation’, with some seeing this as an indication of Regional Boards being created to take education out of direct local authority control. Whilst remaining a possibility, it is unlikely any firm proposals exist. Of much greater interest is the developing notion of looser regional/district educational leadership groupings focussed on pedagogical practice and professional networking. In terms of what makes a difference in the classroom, this support model has much to commend it. By contrast, organisational restructuring would be a time consuming distraction.

Tension exists between national and local government over the Scottish Government’s intention to pursue its education agenda, with or without COSLA support. This has been made explicit in the new National Improvement Framework which moves significant leverage around standards away from councils in the direction of Holyrood. Whilst local authority control of schools should be defended, councils need to demonstrate how they are adding value to the education process.

From an EIS perspective, it has been depressing to note COSLA’s biggest recent educational battle has been around challenging Scottish Government’s commitment to maintain teacher numbers. Scottish Government is already experimenting with providing some direct funding to schools. This can be a good thing if it is a way of ring-fencing education spending and potentially empowering schools. But there are limits and drawbacks for economies of scale may be lost; not all schools have democratic structures for spending money; and head teachers are already overworked without taking on more duties.

What is clear is additional resources are required to deliver improvements in education and in a coordinated and planned manner otherwise the impact will be blunted (with sufficient teachers to deliver them). The election focus on education provided a strong basis for developing a consensual approach to policy development and implementation. Teachers try instilling into pupils an understanding that cooperation and collaboration are more effective and progressive than competition. Let’s hope the politicians understand this too.

Larry Flanagan is the general secretary of the Education Institute of Scotland (EIS) union and was a principal teacher of English in Glasgow before being elected to the post.