Iain Gray: Let's listen to teachers and parents

Political initiatives on education can only work if they tune into those at the chalkface writes Labour spokesman Iain Gray

As we debated the Scottish Government’s programme last week, John Swinney, Cabinet Secretary for Education was perplexed. He could not understand why anyone who wanted school reform was not whole-hearted in their support of his bold “next steps” agenda.

The answer is simple. His reforms are the wrong ones, they are not supported by parents, teachers or educationalists and they will not improve our schools. What is more, they are not, as he claims, about local empowerment and autonomy.

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Regional directors, appointed by government, answerable to government, implementing a national framework developed by government, featuring standardised tests designed by government, delivered in schools whose budget has been decided centrally by government and all this in a policy framework developed by an education committee appointed by the education secretary and chaired by him.

That is not local autonomy, it is centralised command and control. It is not the agenda of a Minister who trusts teachers and parents, but rather one who fondly imagines he can run our schools from his office in St Andrew’s House.

It is certainly not progressive, mirroring what the Tory government did to schools in England in the 1980s. At least Kenneth Baker was honest about his objective of removing locally elected councils from their role in education. Mr Swinney hides behind a pretence that local democratic control will remain. It will not.

Even Mr Swinney’s hand-picked International Education Advisers are telling him to stop focussing on structure, because the problems are about capacity and culture.

Given that in his days as Finance Secretary Mr Swinney spent £1.25 billion less on education than he would have had he maintained spending, and oversaw a reduction in teacher numbers of around 4000, he can hardly be surprised that schools have a capacity problem.

It was a major embarrassment for Mr Swinney, that as he promoted “Maths Week” in schools, Trinity Academy in Edinburgh was reduced to begging parents for help in finding maths teachers. This is not the first time either; last time it was Blairgowrie High school in his own constituency.

These are just symptoms though of a wider problem of unfilled teacher vacancies.

The underlying reason is not hard to find in a week OECD figures showed that under the SNP Scottish teachers have gone from having some of the best pay deals in the developed world, to one of the worst. Their workload too is now higher than almost anywhere else. We already know that our schools have exceptionally big class sizes by international standards. Little wonder we have a recruitment crisis, or, as research last week showed, almost half of our teachers want to leave the profession.

As for culture, that is driven by the two key national educational bodies, Education Scotland and the SQA. In the government consultation on reform, they came in for widespread criticism. Education Scotland in particular was accused of prioritising supporting ministers over supporting teachers, who they drown in bureaucratic “guidance”.

Yet Mr Swinney plans not to reform these bodies but to supercharge them. Education Scotland will manage the regional Directors he intends to appoint. The Scottish Council for Educational Leadership, perhaps the most successful of all recent educational innovations will be delivered into the dead hand of Education Scotland.

It is not too late to stop these misguided reforms. Instead Mr Swinney should review teachers’ pay, workload and career structure to support the profession and make it attractive again. We can have the best schools in the world, and the best teachers in the world, if we are prepared to support them. Ultimately that means more funding.

Labour will not support the reforms in proposed in the forthcoming Education (Governance) Bill, and we will not accept yet another Scottish budget that hits local councils who provide the funding for our schools.

We will continue to make a positive case for our own ideas. It is important to remember that the government’s Pupil Equity Fund, a payment made directly to head teachers to support initiatives to cut the attainment gap, was a Labour policy long before the SNP adopted it. Unfortunately SNP ministers botched it when they copied our policy.

Labour proposed this as additional funding paid for by a 50p top rate of tax. The SNP approach is to take money out of the core budget from which schools are funded – leading to the ludicrous position where schools are forced to make cuts in core provision, while being asked to create new programmes funded by Pupil Equity Fund.

Not only is the worst kind of ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’, but SNP ministers routinely hide behind Pupil Equity Funding when charged with the cuts to core school provision.

Rather than carry on with more cuts the Education Secretary also should re-establish an independent inspectorate, break down Education Scotland and task them with supporting, not directing, regional collaboration answerable to local authorities, not to central government. He must urgently address the mismatch of the new National exams with the new curriculum, most acutely at National 4.

First, though, he has to start listening to teachers, parents and the evidence, and admit that he does not always know best.

Iain Gray is Labour’s education spokesperson