Leader: Ministers must listen to teachers' concerns

ACCORDING to Ronnie Smith, leader of Scotland's biggest and most powerful teacher union, Scottish education is now in "a long dark tunnel". For some this may be hyperbole of the type to be expected of an EIS annual conference. But for teachers it is no more than a fair description of the uncertainty and confusion created by the Curriculum for Excellence.

On this part of the tunnel at least, the administration has done a considerable amount of the digging. Given the widespread criticism of the CfE over the past year, it was perhaps only to be expected that the EIS would be highly critical. At its conference yesterday it voted to hold a ballot in November on boycotting its introduction.

But there are other dimensions to this tunnel. Widespread frustration and anger was expressed over teachers' pay and conditions. Here the mood reflected a darkening background for local authority budgets and in particularly the intensifying pressure for expenditure savings. This pressure applies particularly to the largest element in local authority education budgets: staff pay. Teachers, no less than the rest of us, are feeling the pressures of sharply rising utility bills, petrol price increases, tax rises and general inflation.

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Given these pressures, the EIS conference yesterday showed restraint in voting against a call for targeted strikes over pay and conditions. Industrial action here would gain little public sympathy, given that these are tough times for everyone. In any event, the savings being sought have not as yet been fully identified, making it difficult for the EIS to articulate where its particular grievances lay.

However, on the problems created by the Curriculum for Excellence, teachers do have legitimate concerns to which the Scottish government should attend.

The rationale for this new programme has never recovered from the onslaught delivered last May by Professor Lindsay Paterson. In a blistering analysis he found the CfE programme so flawed as to cast doubt on whether it could be said to be feasible at all. While Mike Russell, the Education Secretary, insists that there is clear support for the CfE, a widespread complaint at the conference yesterday was that changes were being brought in too quickly, increasing workloads and damaging pupils' learning. Warnings on this very outcome were expressed throughout last year, only to be dismissed with bland assurances that the system would bed in with little difficulty. Many parents will share the anxiety within schools that a generation of young people are being exposed to an experiment the benefits of which have been challenged and where many have questioned the timetable for implementation.

The administration is reaping a whirlwind of its own making. It needs to take account of the problems being faced if it is to avoid industrial action over what was clearly intended to be a showpiece improvement.