Addressing the annual general meeting of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) in Perth, Russell told delegates he plans to set up a working group to reduce the “bureaucracy and unnecessary paperwork” associated with Curriculum for Excellence (CfE).
On Friday, members of Scotland’s largest teaching union passed a motion calling for strike action due to concerns over workload. But, adopting a conciliatory tone as the first education secretary to address the EIS agm in its 167-year history, Russell said it was “utterly unacceptable” that some headteachers or local authorities had surrounded the clear aims of CfE with a “smokescreen” of red tape. He also attacked Michael Gove after the English Education Secretary said Scotland’s system was “stuck in a rut” due to a curriculum which lacks “rigour”.
Addressing concerns over workload, Russell said: “I have been very clear in my response to those concerns. It is utterly unacceptable that any school, headteacher or local authority should be able to surround the clear aims of Curriculum for Excellence with a smokescreen of bureaucracy and unnecessary paperwork. That needs to stop, and it needs to stop now.
“Curriculum for Excellence is about giving teachers greater scope for professional decision making. It’s about freeing you to do what you do best, and about assisting you to develop your skills in order to deliver learning at its best.
“It is not, it must not be, about constant form filling and supervision. What we won’t stand for are systems that involve highly detailed and unnecessary red tape. The workload campaign launched by your union just a few weeks ago, had a simple request – work with us. That is exactly what I am going to do.”
He said he hoped a working group, which will include representatives of the Scottish Government, EIS, Education Scotland and the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland (ADES), would meet in the coming weeks.
Russell’s speech came after Gove said in a newspaper interview yesterday that CfE had caused a “drift” away from “rigour”, causing Scotland to fall behind its international competitors.
Russell said being attacked by his English counterpart was a “badge of honour”, and accused Gove of forcing through learning by rote and “nineteenth century teaching methods”.
“Two weeks ago, my counterpart south of the Border condemned the English teaching unions as Marxists because they dared to oppose his education reforms,” Russell said.
“Yet, even the most ideologically-driven system in history – that of Communist China – involved less prescription from the centre than Mr Gove’s.
“We are not going down that road. Where the Westminster government seeks to exploit problems for their political and ideological agenda, we seek partnership and consensus to solve problem.”
The education secretary received a fair hearing from teachers, and received his biggest round of applause for the attack on his English counterpart.
However, he received some heckling when responding to a question about the troubled implementation of the Nationals, the new exams which will replace Standard Grades and Intermediates from later this year.
He went on to announce new teacher support materials for exams along with new resources on assessment and moderation.
In a later session, Andy Harvey, a teacher from South Lanarkshire, accused Russell of attempting to duck the issues by attacking Gove.
“It was like trying to watch 200 people try to nail a very large piece of jelly to a wall,” Harvey told fellow delegates.
Larry Flanagan, EIS general secretary, said: “The cabinet secretary addressed a number of important issues in his speech today, and much of what he had to say was well received by teachers and lecturers in the hall. Overall, although delegates clearly did not agree with everything that the cabinet secretary had to say, it is positive that the cabinet secretary was willing to speak to teachers and lecturers directly and also to listen to their concerns about education in Scotland,” he said.
“In particular, the EIS welcomes [his] intention to establish a working group to tackle teacher workload and reduce the amount of unnecessary bureaucracy associated with CfE.”
Teachers also yesterday backed a motion calling for the policy on school exclusions to be re-visited amid concern that its current policies were not working. Under the existing system, most pupils return to school within days, while the worst-behaving are simply moved to another school.
Richard Foote, a teacher from Edinburgh, told delegates: “We’ve got a raging fire and the solution seems to be to turn off the fire alarm.”