Scottish Education Must Change in 2023

To understate dramatically, Scottish education finishes 2022 in a poor place. We are in the middle (well, probably closer to the beginning) of a teachers’ strike, the first about pay for nearly forty years – the 1984 one took place not long after I had entered the profession. To be honest, while pay is obviously the central issue, I can’t think that that’s all that has brought Scottish teachers to this pass. Never, in my long association with Scottish schools have I heard teachers talk about their exhaustion, their workload and their lack of confidence going forward. Of course, the Scottish Government has limited resources at its disposal, but we can only hope that early in the new year some breakthrough will be made. 

Do teachers deserve more money? Of course they do; teachers train as long as doctors to enter their profession and their work, though lacking the visceral excitement of the operating table or A and E on a Saturday night, is at least equally important. The effect of your P1 teacher on your future is incalculable but somehow or other teachers so often seem the poor relation…well, they get long holidays…get Friday afternoons off…work short days…and, of course, they love their work, it’s a…what’s the word…vocation? I saw a cartoon recently set in a careers office in which an interviewer is speaking to a nurse and saying ‘Have you thought of trying an uncaring profession?’ Yes, it’s funny, but you can be sure Scottish society will be laughing less easily if thousands of teachers…or nurses…or doctors… or ambulance drivers do just that. 

However, the malaise under which the teaching profession labours goes further than just money, and we must all hope that the current consultation emerging from the Muir Report, which itself was a response to last year’s OECD report on the state of Curriculum for Excellence, will provide necessary change. It must do something to address the actual experience of teachers in classrooms, often dealing with a huge spectrum of their pupils’ needs, educational and pastoral, and concomitant issues of discipline,  parental pressure, and the constant shower of guff coming from those in power in education which often necessitates hours and hours of work to achieve nothing. Scottish teachers must often feel like characters out of Samuel Beckett, buried up to their necks or else waiting for something to happen that will improve their lives. I still don’t really understand Twitter, a problem exacerbated by being over…50, but I like the tweets on a parody account called ‘SLT (Senior Leadership Team) Newbie’ which purport to come from a youngish teacher who has just joined a school management team: recently for example:

‘There is a CPD twilight session calendared for Sunday the 5th of February from 3.30 until 6pm. This is, of course, wrong. It should say from 3.30pm until 7pm’.

This is not fiction. This is an exaggeration of fact. Teachers, scrutinised by the General Teaching Council for Scotland are, along with lesson preparation, marking, report writing, parent’s meetings, staff meetings, reading the documentation endlessly sent out by ‘Education Scotland’ and other bodies, supposed to engage in Continuing Professional Development, otherwise known as ‘Lifelong Learning’ presumably so called because it ends when you simply give up and die. All of this must stop and teachers – and Head Teachers – must simply be trusted more and allowed to get on with the job. This job itself must become more clearly defined (eg by a radical revision of the curriculum) and easier to do in practice (eg by ensuring that children who require specialist care get most, if not all, of that care, outwith the bounds of mainstream classrooms). I know I spent my career in the private sector, which has much greater freedoms in all sorts of ways, but I confidently expect that teachers in the state sector reading this (because they can while they are on holiday) broadly agree. 

Those responsible for the forthcoming reports on the curriculum, and on assessment and qualifications, this latter coming from a committee chaired by Professor Louise Hayward, need to get it right. There is evidence of declining standards in Scottish education, or at least of those ‘standards’ – literacy, numeracy, capability in science, ability to cope with life – which most ordinary people might think schools had a major responsibility for. The Cabinet Secretary for Education has made a major decision recently, rejecting the Muir Report’s recommendation that the new body replacing the Scottish Qualifications Authority (to be called Qualifications Scotland) should cease to have the responsibility of both awarding and regulating qualifications. This may seem like rather a technical distinction but it’s the principle – you agree to a high-powered report, produced by a bunch of distinguished people (ok, maybe they themselves were rather distanced from actual experience of actual schools, but still) and then simply say no to one of its chief recommendations. I spoke recently at an education conference in Edinburgh and the mood was pretty grim – I don’t think that many people there held out much hope that the radical changes necessary in Scottish Education would happen – the stranglehold of the apparatchiks of Education Scotland is perceived by many as just too strong.

Where are the young people in all this? Still struggling after the pandemic, which will have educational and pastoral effects for the next decade. Where are their teachers? On strike and seeking a way out. Where are their Head Teachers? Stressed and powerless, and distanced from decision-making. Happy New Year.


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