Euan McColm: Teachers must try harder with CfE

'At best the results suggested the failure of our education system to keep up with the best in the world'. Picture: PA
'At best the results suggested the failure of our education system to keep up with the best in the world'. Picture: PA
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THROUGHOUT my school years in the 1970s and 80s, I was frequently told that a Scottish education was the best in the world.

Our courses and teachers were the envy of others; Scotland led the field in making the most of every child’s potential.

This may, at some point, have been the case but while we were complacently congratulating ourselves on the magic that was being performed in Scottish classrooms, our education system was becoming anything but the best.

A study last year showed that the UK is in 26th place in the international league table for maths, 23rd for reading, and 21st for science. Within the UK, Scottish pupils perform slightly better in maths and reading than their English counterparts while teenagers south of the Border fare better in sciences. For the first time, the UK was not in the top 20 for any of these three subjects.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – which publishes the results of its Programme for International Student Assessment every three years – found British (including Scottish) teenagers are lagging way behind students in the Far East and across northern Europe in key areas of learning.

At best the results suggested the failure of our education system to keep up with the best in the world. At worst, they provided evidence of ongoing decline in the quality of education our kids receive.

If ever there was justification for the demand “something must be done”, these results supplied it.

In Scottish schools, something already is being done. The national Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), controversial as its formulation and implementation might have been with teachers and parents, is a serious piece of work, begun by the Labour/Liberal Democrat administration at Holyrood and seen through by the SNP until its introduction in the 2010-11 school year.

The curriculum’s aim – to provide students with a fuller understanding of subjects rather than simply giving them enough to get though an exam – seems eminently sensible. And, since it is here to stay, it’s incumbent on teachers to make CfE work. This week, teachers suggested they are not, in great numbers, able to do so.

A survey by the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA) found a majority of teachers – 60 per cent – are not confident in their ability to deliver courses for the new flagship National 4 and 5 qualifications which, from May, will replace the old Standard Grades for pupils in fourth year. Almost 80 per cent of the 1,500 teachers who responded to the SSTA said they were not ready to assess pupils sitting studying for their Nationals.

Alan McKenzie, acting general secretary of the SSTA, said teachers had not been given the materials necessary to prepare their pupils and described levels of anxiety among his members that he had never before witnessed. Teachers reported a lack of materials to allow them to fully prepare.

While teachers complained (and more about that tendency in a moment) it emerged that the number of pupils enrolling for the exams has dropped sharply, down 10 per cent on the number who took Standard Grades last year.

Education Secretary Mike Russell can tend towards the excitable when challenged but on teachers’ concerns about implementation of the Nationals he has been calm and reassuring. Throughout his time in charge of education, Russell has been consistent in his message that if teachers feel they need more help, the Scottish Government will provide it.

But it would be unfair to place all responsibility for the success or failure of the Nationals with Russell. Teachers have some part to play.

The CfE has been coming for a long time and so have these exams. The timing of the release of the results of SSTA’s survey has a whiff of politics about it.

Teachers enjoy (by and large) the same sort of immunity from criticism that we afford nurses and firefighters. We assume that they’re a peculiarly dedicated type, that their motives are selfless, and that their sole consideration is the education of children.

But, of course, teachers are just as fallible as the rest of us and, perhaps, a little more resistant to change.

The SSTA’s survey – and its timing – could be read not only as evidence of teacher concerns but of a streak of stubbornness in the profession.

For decades, teachers have complained that they have too little opportunity to get on with their jobs free from bureaucratic interference. There was perfectly understandable resentment from many teachers that successive governments failed to recognise their professional status.

The National exams go a long way to answering that complaint from the education sector. Both National 4 and 5 qualifications involve the continuous assessment of pupils (National 5 adds exams at the end) which will mean far greater responsibility for teachers. That’s exactly what they wanted.

With this greater responsibility comes more work, of course. There will be considerably more marking to be done, for example (one of those be-careful-what-you-wish-for consequences, I suppose).

Russell’s determination to see through reform in the Scottish education sector is to his credit. His work on the CfE and its new exams undermines opposition accusations that Scotland is “on hold” while the SNP fights its independence referendum campaign. He is doing serious work which is long overdue.

We shouldn’t make light of the SSTA’s reported concerns. The lifelong prospects of young Scots depend on educational achievements and Russell’s response to teachers in this instance must be to provide the material teachers demand without delay. But teachers must not be allowed to play a blame game in advance.

Mike Russell might have responsibility for the education department but teachers have responsibility for what happens in their classrooms.

The success or otherwise of the National 4 and 5 exams is not solely down to the Education Secretary, it will require teachers to display those professional standards they’ve long claimed were ignored and which might help Scotland back to the top of the class. «

Twitter: @euanmccolm