Teachers of Scotland! Your politicians need you!

They are in desperate need of an education.

Our profession is always a political football but the recent STV Leaders’ debate was even worse than being (insert your own clichéd football metaphor here). 

Minute-by-minute, the leaders spouted a range of buzzwords and plans to fix our schools.  Most of these seemed to be rooted in long-held views of ‘what works’, loosely linked to their respective parties’ historic values.  Few of their ideas referenced any research or expertise.  Depressingly, the whole lot of them seemed poorly informed about what is already actually happening in Scotland’s classrooms.  

Anas Sarwar worried about pupils who “are doing their exams” just now.  He obviously hasn’t read the latest SQA briefings that nobody is “doing exams” this year.  Or perhaps he has read them, but just isn’t buying into the lie.  And if that’s the case, all credit to Anas.  In posing a question to Willie Rennie about these pupils, Sarwar asked: “shouldn’t they be offered a free re-sit Willie?”  

What?!

Poor Willie, like most of us, didn’t have a clue what Anas meant.  At some point in the past year of scrambling for examy-but-not-too-examy alternatives to exams, Gavin Williamson suggested that English pupils should be offered the chance to take another exam in September if they wanted.  Mercifully, this has never been on the cards in Scotland.  After the challenges of this year, come September, teachers and pupils will already have moved on, urgently, to teaching next year’s cohort who will already be far behind.  It would be impossible to run an exam diet in September. 

Willie didn’t want it anyway.  Willie wants “a Nordic model”.  Education à la Scandinavia.  The Scandies don’t start school until the age of 7, you see.  But Willie doesn’t want that.  So a half-Nordic-model then.  (Semi-Nordic?  Demi-Nordic?  No, I’m sure Demi Nordic was a blonde lass in S4 at my last school).  Then the clanger.  “we need a play-based model and outdoor education”.

“What do you think we do Willie!?” I screamed at my ageing telly.  

Next up, Douglas Ross, who sounded even more snivelly than usual when he quizzed Nicola Sturgeon on the precise date Greenwood Academy was last inspected, as though she were on Mastermind with a specialist subject of HMIe engagement with Scottish schools 1984-2017, and he was some kind of shitty Magnus Magnusson.  Sturgeon couldn’t remember the exact date (fancy that) but did correct Douglas on his placing Greenwood Academy about 40 miles east from where it actually is. 

Sturgeon went on to describe the school as excellent.  This judgement was based on the experience of her niece, who has been a pupil there for years. It was not based on a three-day period of artificial scrutiny by a group of visiting adults who couldn’t get jobs as headteachers.  

The dogged Douglas banged on and on, doggedly, about inspection insisting that he would recruit lots more people who couldn’t get jobs as Heidies to become inspectors and do lots more inspections.  Pigs always get fat by weighing them, see?  

The Finns, incidentally, don’t go in for much inspection, preferring a model of schools supporting each other in self-evaluation. Maybe Douglas and Willie could chat about it sometime over a pint of cold sick

When Dug wasn’t going on about inspection he talked about a “Catch-up Premium” for targeted pupils.  How would that work?  How do you decide who needs it and who doesn’t?  You just can’t Colin.   

Listen Dougie.  Just get your boss to stop spending money on Trident.  Then we can fund schools properly without the need for voter-pleasing top-ups or bolt-ons. 

Inspections. Play. Class sizes.  It was rapidly descending into the lamest game of in-service bingo you’ve ever played.  I was just waiting on someone mentioning Brain Gym.  

Then Patrick Harvie started quoting from the SQA “advice” issued earlier in the day to pupils: “the look and feel of these assessments may seem like an exam”.  

Jings.  The SQA has never wanted to run an alternative system, and has previous form for euphemising, but I think this was the moment I realised that Scottish education really had hit 1984 proportions.  I mean 1984 the novel, not the year (although I bet Duggie could tell us exactly how many inspections there were in that year, broken down by sector and local authority).  

So there we have it.  The “look and feel” of that warm yellow thing in the sky isn’t really the sun.  War really is peace.  And exams, it seems, are not exams.  I can’t remember what else Patrick said about schools.  That lady from the Greens is better anyway. 

But at least Paddy was honest about the need to reduce our dependency on oil and gas if we are to get anywhere near our existing climate change objectives. 

Speaking of gas, Sturgeon talked a lot about progress being made on the attainment gap.  Some of this is justified.   But I wish all politicians would stop talking about the attainment gap as though it were something that could be fixed overnight – or even over the course of a parliament – by a hotchpotch selection of buzzwords and strategies.  Narrowing the attainment gap is a noble aim.  A sense of social justice is what drives most teachers, and many other adults, to give the best of their talents, energy, kindness and tenacity every single day.     

But we need to stop pretending there is a quick win or easy solution.  If there was, we’d have found it already.  (I promise to write about this in more depth in a future post). 

Commendably, the teaching profession in Scotland has a strong voice with decision-makers.  Over the course of the pandemic John Swinney has chaired a weekly meeting – the Covid Education Recovery Group (CERG) – with all stakeholders.  This has meant that, barring one eyebrow-raising moment around the return to school in March, teachers, their unions and their employers have been represented in discussions and plans at each stage of the pandemic.  This is not the case south of the border. 

Over the course of this parliamentary term, Holyrood’s Education & Skills Committee has added valuable questions and discussion to our national discourse. That’s what makes the all the more disappointing and demoralising to see education reduced to such banal and superficial chatter during the election campaign. 

Teachers of Scotland – speak to your politicians!  As this election campaign continues seize every opportunity to use your expertise and knowledge to make sure the debate is lifted from flashy soundbites to the informed, detailed and in-depth discussion that Scotland’s children deserve. 

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