Tom Peterkin: SNP school shake up should be given chance to work

The challenges facing Scottish education are considerable and action must be taken, writes Tom Peterkin.

There can’t be too many jobs where being insulted in the foulest of terms, being kicked or threatened with a pair of scissors is part of a day’s work. Granted, prison officers must have to deal with such behaviour. Police officers, of course, brave all manner of dangerous nonsense, while doctors and nurses have to put up with some pretty gruesome conduct when the drunks stagger to casualty after chucking-out time.

But dealing with physical and verbal threats should not be something that is readily associated with educating youngsters in our classrooms. Yet the anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that teachers are having to endure more and more of precisely this sort of behaviour.

At the weekend, The Scotsman’s sister paper Scotland on Sunday reported accounts from several teachers outlining the challenges they face when it comes to teaching disruptive pupils.

John Swinney plans to give headteachers more power

“In the last two weeks, I have been sworn at, called a ‘f***ing hoor’, kicked at and threatened with scissors,” was how a city centre primary teacher with 15 years’ service in the profession described her latest experiences at work.

“I can see the impact of this daily onslaught of aggression, violence and mental health issues is having,” she added. “This impact is increasing staff mental health problems and causing huge anxiety to other children, who have the right to a safe environment where the focus should be on learning and personal development.

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“We are in the position where we have children with complex needs who are in classrooms with teachers who are wholly unprepared and lacking the skills to deal with them.”

John Swinney plans to give headteachers more power

Her remarks did not paint a pretty picture of Scotland’s education system. In particular, they spoke to a specific problem that many teachers experience when it comes to meeting the challenge of educating disruptive pupils.

At its heart is an ambition to try give as many pupils as possible a mainstream education, no matter the specific challenges some face.

Since 2003 there has been a legally enforceable “presumption of mainstreaming” to ensure that children with additional support needs (ASN) are integrated in primary and secondary schools.

The problem is not in the entirely laudable aim to give as many youngsters as possible a mainstream education. Rather it is a resources problem. The number of ASN pupils in Scotland now stands at 183,491 – 26.6 per cent of the school population and an increase of more than 55 per cent since 2012.

Meanwhile, the latest figures show the numbers of additional support for learning teachers has fallen from 3,384 to 2,990 between 2012 and 2016. This discrepancy has a damaging knock-on effect for everyone involved.

Teachers are stressed. Children without ASN suffer as staff struggle to cope with the more disruptive element. Worst of all the ASN children lose out because they do not receive the specialist help they require to thrive.

More broadly, the impression given is of an education system that is under strain – an impression that is reinforced by the attainment gap between rich and poor, a teacher recruitment crisis and Scottish pupils languishing in international comparisons of academic performance.

The good news, however, is that the Education Secretary is trying to do something about it. Not before time. For years it seems ministers have rather lazily assumed that Scottish education is second to none because we happen to be the inheritors of John Knox’s 16th century parish schools. At the heart of John Swinney’s reforms are giving more powers to headteachers and creating regional bodies to drive through the reforms and delivering a standardised system of pupil assessment.

As is often the case when governments attempt to do something that challenges the status quo, the resistance to Mr Swinney’s programme is formidable.

The education establishment, in the form of the teaching unions and the local authorities, has concerns that too much power will be invested in heads with school performance becoming inextricably linked with the quality of the individual in charge. Local authorities are fearful about losing control with schools becoming less democratically accountable.

Mr Swinney, however, appears bullish when faced with these concerns, standing by his assertion that motivating headteachers to turn round their schools is the way forward.

In terms of the politics, the reforms are opposed by Labour and the Greens, leaving Mr Swinney with an unlikely ally in the form of the Scottish Tories.

Therefore the reforms are likely to receive parliamentary support, albeit in an unpalatable form for some in the SNP. Given the challenges facing education, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Mr Swinney’s reforms should at least be given a chance. And those who oppose them, should reflect that it is not possible to make an omelette without breaking eggs.

Of course it will take many years before these reforms bear fruit but what better legacy for Mr Swinney (and Nicola Sturgeon) than steering the Scottish education system towards excellence for all. In the meantime, there is the pressing challenge of ensuring ASN needs children are given the best possible help and education. Should that challenge be met, Scottish classrooms would become happier and healthier for the teachers and everyone they teach.