SNP's planned Centre of Teaching Excellence will be just an ivory tower that takes funds away from hard-pressed schools – Cameron Wyllie

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The needs of Scottish schools are pretty clear and they don’t include a Centre of Teaching Excellence

I’ve just returned from holidaying in the USA: I would love to say that I was there to study some educational research and visit schools, but actually I mainly ate, looked at pictures and pondered why there seemed to be no potholes on the 700 miles we drove. I returned to news of the Scottish Government’s most recent initiative on educationthe establishment of “a Centre of Teaching Excellence to support research and innovation in teaching practice for all children and young people, with the aim of making Scotland a world leader in teaching practice”.

Sounds great, doesn’t it, and no one can deny that in the best of all possible worlds, such a foundation might well contribute something. But here in Scotland’s schools today, we are so far from the best of all possible worlds that it seems a most odd priority. And that’s not the only problem with Jenny Gilruth’s new idea.

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I can’t be alone in not knowing what ‘teaching excellence’ actually is, even after 38 years spent in classrooms. Of course, there are plenty of people who would claim the expertise necessary to define such a desirable state of affairs: academics, school inspectors, the Scottish Qualifications Authority, the General Teaching Council for Scotland, the officials of Education Scotland.

Many of these people will, at one time, have been practising teachers and some of them may even have been excellent ones. My guess is that most actual teachers – today, in schools – might be rather hesitant to claim to know what makes for ‘teaching excellence’. We all know teachers we thought were hot shots but whose skills didn’t please everybody. Similarly, there’s not a teacher in the land without some fans.

I look forward to hearing what the definition is, what the aspirations of such a no-doubt costly exercise are. We already have agencies in place to define minimum standards in teaching – mainly through the Initial Teacher Education programmes. I’m not sure that deciding some teachers are ‘excellent’ and worthy of imitation, and others are not, is going to help a profession the collective ego of which is already fragile.

But let’s assume we eventually agree on this evanescent idea. Can we take some teachers deemed excellent from the classroom and get them to help others? Well, that seems counter-productive, an echo of the Chartered Teacher scheme (now replaced by the Master of Teaching degree) which took teachers away from doing something very well to prove that they did it very well, while their classes were covered back at the ranch.

In any case, isn’t this at least part of what Education Scotland is supposed to be doing? And isn’t Jenny Gilruth supposed to be reforming that overblown monstrosity of a quango anyway? Nobody knows what it does. Instead of taking teachers out of schools, she might be better sending some of these alleged experts back from their secondments to find out what is actually happening in the schools they left behind, in some cases many years ago. Instead of saving money by tightening up (or simply closing down) Education Scotland, it would appear that a newly branded Centre of Excellence will appear and siphon off yet more essential funds from schools.

Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth, seen visiting Edinburgh's Craigmount High, plans to create a Centre of Teaching Excellence (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth, seen visiting Edinburgh's Craigmount High, plans to create a Centre of Teaching Excellence (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth, seen visiting Edinburgh's Craigmount High, plans to create a Centre of Teaching Excellence (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

The Educational Institute of Scotland, Scotland’s main teaching union, has rightly reacted quickly to this announcement, pointing out all the things that are actually needed in Scotland’s schools. Here are some: we need a great many more qualified teachers of children with additional support needs, who form nearly a third of the school population in Scotland, and we need a great many more teaching assistants to help those teachers, while we await the revisiting of the ‘presumption of mainstreaming’ policy.

Teachers need more time to prepare quality lessons and to reflect on their practice (that would be the ones who – with disarming modesty – see their performance as less than ‘excellent’). And we need to do something about bad behaviour, particularly violent behaviour, in our schools. I had dinner recently with a friend of mine who is a highly experienced practitioner (yes, I expect she really is ‘excellent’) in a state primary school, a school which used to be regarded as a pretty good school.

Now she says "discipline has gone… there is none” and she deals every day with children whose behaviour is out of control. There is way too much time being spent in our schools that is unproductive in educational terms; while the answer to some of these problems is philosophical, most of the answer lies in greater financial investment, investment best decided by head teachers and their staff.

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In the past year, Scotland has benefited from four really important reports in education and, of course, it takes time to see what the most valuable conclusions from these reports are. The First Minister has just decided, in a speech which will have surprised Jenny Gilruth, that council tax is to be frozen. Unless that lost money is found somewhere else, this can only have a deleterious effect on schools, at a time when morale has never been lower.

There is, of course, a feeling of endgame about all this, with all these unconsidered policy statements, but the needs of Scottish schools and their students (and their parents, who do, of course, vote) are pretty clear, and they don’t include a Centre of Teaching Excellence which will, at best, be a well-meaning ivory tower and, at worst, simply a vanity project.

Cameron Wyllie is a former head teacher. He writes a blog called A House in Joppa and is the author of a book called Is There A Pigeon in the Room? My Life in Schools



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