Dani Garavelli: Is he bovvered? John Swinney must try harder

Education Secretary John Swinney's response to angry teachers on air suggests serious failure to comprehend their problems, writes Dani Garavelli.

John Swinney was meant to be Nicola Sturgeons safe pair of hands for the education brief. Picture: John Devlin

It must have taken some guts for John Swinney to agree to spend an hour on BBC Radio Scotland’s Stephen Jardine Programme on Thursday, fielding questions on the mayhem that is the current state of Scottish education. Not as much guts as it would have taken to go on the week before when teachers were still on holiday and free to call in, of course. But even with most of them safely ensconced in the classroom, the encounter was unlikely to be anything other than bruising.

A quick recap of the problems that have reared their heads in the past few weeks alone should give an insight into the scale of the maelstrom Swinney was heading into. But where to start? With the 700 teaching posts that remained unfilled two weeks before the beginning of term, perhaps? Or the escalating row over the standardised testing of P1s? Or with the report showing the dramatic decline in secondary school pupils taking foreign languages as subject choices narrow under the Curriculum for Excellence? Or with the plummeting spirits of teachers who are struggling to cope with an assessment-heavy system?

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

It is two years since Nicola Sturgeon put her most trusted lieutenant in charge of schools. She said: “Judge me on my education record”; and contributors to the radio programme were eager to oblige.

Caller after caller went on the attack over recruitment, workload, pay and cuts to learning assistants. One retiring primary head, named only as Susan, said the profession was haemorrhaging teachers. “The working time agreement for teachers is almost a joke,” she said. “There’s no way teachers can do the contracted hours in enough time. The morale is so low.”

A principal teacher at a Highland secondary school said the requirement for recording assessments at primary school was bordering on the ridiculous, while a pupil support assistant told him a lack of resources meant children with special needs were being failed. One mother said her ten-year-old daughter, who is unable to go to the toilet unaided, had been left covered in faeces because no learning assistant was available to help her.

Swinney has a reputation for unflappability; it is probably one of the qualities that secured him his current role. But there is a point at which unflappability veers into complacency, and in his “Crisis? What Crisis?” response to these criticisms, Swinney crossed that line.

Failing to acknowledge the depth of people’s concerns, he continued to peddle the same old mantras: that these were “challenging times”, that teaching is “a very busy and demanding life”, but he insisted there was no great problem with morale. He must mix in different circles to me, then. The teachers I know are overwhelmed as they struggle to deal with a toxic mix of high expectations and low resources.

Such was Swinney’s state of denial that when Susan retorted: “I don’t hear anything you’ve said this morning that would convince me you have got a handle on this,” one could only share in her exasperation.

To cap it all, the following day it emerged Swinney had approached Finance Secretary Derek Mackay on behalf of Kilgraston School, which is in his constituency, and is concerned about the end of business rates charity relief for private schools.

Swinney insisted he was just doing his job as an MSP. But given the SNP has presided over hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts to education budgets, his query and Mackay’s reply – that the school could seek rates relief from the local council – seemed hypocritical, while providing further evidence that the party is often less progressive than it pretends.

The SNP’s fingers-in-the-ears routine on education has been going on for years, now. Swinney and his predecessor, Angela Constance managed to block out the warnings of teachers that things were going badly awry with the implementation of CfE and that cuts in learning assistants were adding to overall pressure.

Instead of tackling those problems, he tried to press ahead with controversial reforms to empower headteachers and strip local authorities of more of their control. Such was the lacklustre reception to his flagship Education Reform Bill, he dropped it just before recess. Though some within the profession have warned it could mean creeping privatisation, he is still wedded to it; he just believes it will be enacted more quickly without legislation.

Swinney is showing the same thrawnness over the issue of standardised assessments; time and again teachers have told them such assessments can only lead to league tables and to teaching to the test.

Particularly concerning are the ones for P1 pupils. Personally, I don’t understand why these are so distressing for the children involved. Surely they can be presented as a game; something they can enjoy. But I do understand that teachers – who spend many hours a week with their pupils – are constantly evaluating their progress. To them, the tests seem unnecessary and consume time that would be better spent on actual learning.

At the Edinburgh International Book Festival, teacher-turned-author Alex Beard called for all primary school testing to be scrapped. “I know as a teacher I could teach my students to succeed in their GCSE exam and, when I reflect on that, I realise I wasn’t equipping them with real, long-term abilities, knowledge and skills that they could apply in the future,” he said. If you want an example of how this works consider that at my children’s school, pupils doing music will often play the same piece for two years just to make sure they know what they are doing come the Nat 5s.

On recruitment, Swinney claims to have been proactive: he told the Stephen Jardine Programme that measures introduced to attract new teachers included bursaries to encourage people to switch careers and teach in Science, Technology and Maths (STEM) subjects.

But with resources tight, teachers’ take-home pay having fallen in real terms, and only a 3 per cent rise on the table, would making that shift feel like a positive or even viable option? Surely the most effective way to increase recruitment is to make teachers feel valued; that can only be done by investing more and – just as importantly – respecting what they have to say.

The failure to do so over a protracted period of time means that, as pupils returned to school, teachers were already on the offensive, threatening test boycotts and industrial action.

No parent wants their child educated in a system which is in a constant state of upheaval or by people who are so worn down they have lost their passion for their subject. Last week, Swinney ended a column on his education reforms thus: “Every new school year brings an opportunity for a fresh start.” Let’s hope he takes his own words at face value; that as pupils settle back in he starts to face up to the reality of the situation. Only when the Scottish Government acknowledges the mistakes that have been made, can it begin to repair the damage done to the profession.