James McEnaney: How to improve Scottish education

CommonSpace columnist and lecturer James McEnaney says the teaching profession needs far more support

WELL it's official: education is going to be 'front and centre' in the coming election campaign. We can therefore expect to hear endless rhetoric about 'closing the attainment gap', 'making effective use of new data', 'backing innovative solutions' and 'putting young people first'. Some of it might even sound convincing.

For people like myself this should be wonderful news - at least the debate is happening, right? Maybe, but unfortunately we can already see the same old mistakes being made again and again. If doing the same things and expecting new results is insanity, then Scottish education should have been committed a long time ago.

There is a hard truth to be faced, and it is this: ultimately, no amount of tinkering with the system is going to truly address the root of our educational problems. We know that the major driver of educational inequality is poverty, with students from poor backgrounds all but guaranteed to do less well than children with affluent parents.

If doing the same things and expecting new results is insanity, then Scottish education should have been committed a long time ago.

The same shameful pattern plays out all over the country and remains utterly resistant to government attempts to tackle it, but it is a consequence of a far deeper problem which can only be tackled by cohesive, long-term planning and policy- making.

While education must be a part of the solution, and changes to education policy could at least partially mitigate the problem, it is extraordinarily simplistic to assume that just the right combination of reductive policies will miraculously undo the educational injustice faced by thousands of Scottish children.

In the end the situation is simple: so long as we live in a disgracefully unequal society our attempts to eliminate educational inequality will be in vain.

But this does not mean that the education system is entirely powerless, and there is something which we can - and must - change if we are to start making real progress: the way we treat our teachers.

The teaching profession is currently drowning under an ever-rising sea of pointless, crippling bureaucracy, with every organisational layer above them demanding a seemingly constant stream of targets, predictions and futile paperwork. In simple terms, teachers are not being trusted to get on with teaching.

In the end the situation is simple: so long as we live in a disgracefully unequal society our attempts to eliminate educational inequality will be in vain.

Back in 2013, the government set up the Working Group on Tackling Bureaucracy. Despite being comprised of a range of - to use the government's preferred term - 'stakeholders', the recommendations made by this group were utterly, and inevitably, anaemic, and little if any progress has been made. The same will almost certainly be true for Education Secretary Angela Constance's new 'expert group'.

On top of this, teachers' workload has reached utterly unsustainable levels due to a combination of financially motivated structural changes and some truly shocking failures in both the design and implementation of the Curriculum for Excellence.

The problems have become so acute that proposals for nationwide industrial action (in the form of a 'withdrawal of co-operation') recently secured 93 per cent support in an indicative ballot, while all five secondary schools in West Dunbartonshire were closed by a one-day teachers' strike earlier this week.

These problems are not new, but they are getting worse. Teachers in Scotland have longer hours and more class contact time than most developed countries, and in May last year a survey by the EIS union revealed that, on average, teachers are working an additional 11 hours each week on top of their contracts.

Basically, our whole schooling system is completely dependant upon teachers completing a weekly quota of culturally imposed, unpaid overtime.

On the face of it this scenario is ideal for both local and central government, allowing them to 'extract additional value' from available funding, but the short- term financial benefits of exploiting teachers' free labour are not enough to offset the damage done by pushing the profession to the verge of collective burnout.

Our whole schooling system is completely dependant upon teachers completing a weekly quota of culturally imposed, unpaid overtime.

It's simple really: teacher working conditions are student learning conditions . So long as we refuse to acknowledge that basic reality we will continue to fail the children of Scotland by taking every single teacher in the country and tying one hand behind their back.

If we are really serious about improving the quality of Scottish education then we should be investing not in headline-friendly gimmicks, but in support for, and development of, the teaching profession.

Scotland does not need a regressive system of standardised testing, league tables and the public shaming of struggling schools; we do not need the adoption of the Free School or Academy models which risk damaging fragmentation of our education system; and we certainly don't need the point-scoring and party-political bickering which has become the norm.

Unfortunately, the politicised nature of the debate means that real alternatives to the status-quo are deemed too difficult, too controversial and - in an indictment of our whole approach to education - too long-term to be of use or interest to politicians seemingly incapable of thinking in anything other than five-year cycles.

Picture courtesy of Mike Hoff