Jim Murphy takes on SNP over classroom failure

Scottish history was on the agenda when Jim Murphy visited this school in Inverurie  Picture: Andrew Milligan

Scottish history was on the agenda when Jim Murphy visited this school in Inverurie Picture: Andrew Milligan

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JIM Murphy has pledged to bring back a controversial reform to get the best teachers into under-performing classrooms, igniting a war with the SNP over education policy.

The front-runner in the race for the Scottish Labour leadership has said he will re-introduce chartered teachers status as part of a wide-ranging plan to tackle failing schools and the underachievement of children in Scotland’s poorest areas. In a move that underlines his reputation as a Blairite reformer, Murphy unveiled a set of proposals which also includes encouraging parents who have literacy issues of their own, to learn to read and write alongside their children.

Murphy believes that breaking the cycle of educational disadvantage can be achieved by targeting the 20 per cent of pupils who achieve the least wherever they study – an approach which recognises that children can struggle in otherwise satisfactory schools.

If he wins this week’s Labour leadership contest, and defeats the SNP to become Scotland’s First Minister, he will also focus “unrelentingly” on the 20 poorest performing schools in Scotland.

At the heart of the approach would be ensuring that the chartered teachers scheme, which provided incentives for the most talented teachers to stay in the classroom rather than moving into management, makes a comeback.

The scheme, which saw teachers salaries increase from £34,200 to £41,900 by undergoing professional training, was scrapped by the SNP more than two years ago following recommendations by the McCormac Review into teachers’ conditions.

Originally introduced by the Labour-led Scottish Executive more than a decade ago, at the time it was a rare example of Scotland embracing an English-style education reform. It came under criticism for creating a two-tier teaching system, but when the then SNP education secretary Michael Russell revealed his intention to abandon it, Scottish teaching unions reacted angrily, arguing that it had improved quality in the classroom.

Another key plank of Murphy’s reforms would be the transformation of the 20 poorest performing schools into community learning centres.

The centres would provide adult literacy lessons and would concentrate on helping parents assist their youngsters when it came to learning to read and write.

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“One of the things I am going to make an enormous effort on is the fact that too many kids from working class communities get locked out and it has happened for far too long. I am going to do whatever it takes to change that,” Murphy said yesterday.

He cited statistics which suggested that just 2.5 per cent of children from the poorest areas achieve three A-grades in Highers. Achieving three As was more than six times more likely if the pupil came from the wealthiest fifth of households. Murphy added that his plan to raise educational standards for the most disadvantaged would be financed by his plans to raise the 50p top rate of income tax when those powers come to Scotland.

“Rather than saying, that’s terrible and bemoaning it, I am hugely unsettled by it. It’s unacceptable that a Scotland that celebrates the history of our education system and the conceit of being progressive tolerates that sort of thing to happen,” Murphy said.

“Too many politicians – the political class – look the other way because it’s not their kids. You turn the schools into being much more community learning facilities. The key to this is mothers. Who is it that’s going to read to these weans in bed? It’s the mothers, the mums are more regularly around and the numeracy and literacy levels of the mums in some of these families isn’t strong enough.

“How do you get the youngsters to a better position? It’s about the mums being better readers and preparing the kids for day one at school. It’s about incentivising teachers, I would introduce a chartered teaching arrangement.

“Some really talented teachers feel they have to go into management to get a career advancement or an increase in their wages. I want some of the most talented, ambitious teachers not to feel they have to go into management. I would focus on 20 schools at a time, the ten worst performing academically and another ten where the poorest are most likely to be left behind.”

His reforms would also include an annual review on progress made on tackling educational inequality and a pledge to double the number of teaching assistants in primary schools, which act as feeders to poorly performing secondary schools.

Murphy was speaking as the contest for the Labour leadership approaches its conclusion. Saturday will see the winner announced in a contest that has put Murphy up against Neil Findlay, the Holyrood health spokesman, and Sarah Boyack, the former Holyrood cabinet minister. Murphy, who remains the favourite to win, believes he can transform Labour’s fortunes, claiming he would raise £1 million for the party from members and business.

With the SNP comfortably out-polling Labour, he also made the bold prediction that under his leadership his party would hold on to all 40 of its Scottish seats in next year’s General Election plus win a few others.

“Our hopes are to win everything we have and to pick the Liberals pockets in one or two places,” he said.

Last night a SNP spokesman responded to Murphy’s education plans saying: “Jim Murphy lacks credibility on these issues. He talks about access and attainment but people remember when Labour voted to introduce tuition fees and he has, of course, also refused to commit his party to continued free university education in Scotland.”

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