Christopher Marshall: Cheers to jeers for Russell

Education Secretary Mike Russell. Picture: Robert PerryEducation Secretary Mike Russell. Picture: Robert Perry
Education Secretary Mike Russell. Picture: Robert Perry
WHEN education secretary Mike Russell addressed members of Scotland’s largest teaching union at their annual conference last year, even he must have been surprised by the reception he received.

An unusually large press pack had gathered on a sunny Saturday morning in Perth to hear from the minister, no doubt hoping for the sort of headline-grabbing haranguing that often greets politicians at such events. But unlike some of their English counterparts, members of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) gave the MSP for Argyll and Bute the sort of full and undivided attention that teachers themselves can only dream of.

The gig had been made considerably easier for the minister due to an article that had appeared in the press that morning in which the Westminster Education Secretary, Michael Gove, had stuck the boot into Scotland’s fledgling Curriculum for Excellence. If there’s one thing on which Scottish teachers and Scotland’s education secretary can agree, it’s that neither likes the direction the Scottish-educated Gove is taking the curriculum in south of the Border.

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And while his English counterpart endures weekly skirmishes with the profession, Mr Russell has enjoyed a largely constructive relationship.

However, there are signs that relationship is beginning to sour. Were Mr Russell to address the same conference today, it’s more likely he would be forced to endure the near-ubiquitous heckling that greets his namesake south of the Border.

Forget the independence referendum, the biggest issue on the agenda for teachers and pupils alike is the troubled introduction of the new national qualifications. Gone are the Standard Grades, which pupils have sat in Scottish schools since the mid-1980s. In their place are the National 4 and 5, which have been designed to fit in with the new curriculum and will lead pupils on to a revamped Higher exam in S5.

In recent months, both the EIS and the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association have warned that many teachers are still unsure what it is they’re actually supposed to be teaching, with the exams just a few months away.

It’s not just teachers who have their concerns. A letter to The Scotsman this week from S4 pupil Flora Scarabello spoke of “anger and utter exasperation” at the new exams and lamented the loss of “rigour” – ironically, the same criticism levelled by Mr Gove.

At best, teachers and pupils will muddle through with the hand they have been dealt. At worst, thousands of our young people will suffer due to the exams’ poor implementation. Either way, the minister is unlikely to get the same sort of reception should he be invited to the EIS conference this year.