What will the new year bring for Scotland’s teachers?

With the new school year approaching, teachers coming to the end of their summer break are turning their thoughts to the classroom once again. But what will 2019-20 hold for Scotland’s educators? With huge issues such as school funding and Curriculum for Excellence looming, Tes asked teachers for their hopes and top tips for the year ahead. It seems that school staff are, as always, determined to put their pupils first, writes Henry Hepburn
16th August 2019, 12:03am
What Will The New Year Bring For Teachers?

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What will the new year bring for Scotland’s teachers?

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/what-will-new-year-bring-scotlands-teachers

So here it is: the new school year. For people who work in schools, the middle of August is like January for everyone else. After all the excesses - just swap the turkey and Quality Street for cold beers and overdone barbecue sausages - everyone is full of virtuous intent.

But what will 2019-20 hold for Scottish teachers bounding back into work with new ideas and fresh purpose? Will they be buoyed by the sense of “empowerment” that all the high heidyins in Scottish education are promising them? Or tethered by mounting workloads and shrinking budgets?

Everything they will do will be shaped - in a malformed fashion, some would say - by Curriculum for Excellence. Towards the end of last year, nearly two decades after CfE was conceived, the debate around its fate seemed to liven up: its future, a number of commentators opined, was on a knife edge. Will a “CfE 2.0” - as some have dubbed it - rise resplendently from the ashes of all the pointless paperwork that curricular reform has spawned? Or is CfE so fundamentally flawed that it will never recover?

What is clear is that, for all the angst about CfE, Scottish educators don’t take kindly to outside observers writing it off as a “disaster”. When a former adviser to erstwhile Westminster education secretary Michael Gove tweeted exactly that before the summer, Scottish education Twitter shook its head in unison. For all Scottish education’s flaws, they reckoned, there would be plenty to be proud of in the months and years ahead, not least the country’s determination to do more for pupils who, in past generations, were often failed by school.

Far beyond arcane discussions about curricular reform, there is, of course, an international trend that will have a big bearing on Scottish education this year: no one has very much money. Local authorities are now dipping into financial reserves that, until a few years ago, had been set aside only for the most sodden of rainy days. Education has been more protected than other areas from the financial buffeting of recent years - but when councils set their budgets early next year, the sector is likely to bear a bigger burden of cuts than it is accustomed to.

There are shoots of optimism in the profession, however. There was certainly a different feel to the EIS teaching union’s AGM in Perth in June: with the long-running pay dispute having been resolved to most people’s satisfaction, it felt at times as though this was a lull as everyone caught their breath - there were only about half as many motions as in 2017. But the unions have promised not to rest on their laurels and the big issue for this school year, they say, is workload.

The apparent narrowing of subject choices repeatedly made news headlines in the past school year, thanks largely to an inquiry by the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee. New data from the Scottish Qualifications Authority - which has just published the latest exam results - will be pored over to see which subjects are on the decline. But there are plenty of other issues for new SQA chief executive Fiona Robertson - taking over from Janet Brown after her 12-year tenure - to address. Not least, is there any conceivable way that National 4 can finally be modified to teachers’ and pupils’ satisfaction?

At primary level, the conundrum of Scottish National Standardised Assessments is also unlikely to go away. Those campaigning against the tests are dogged in their resistance and, if anything, the independent report published shortly before the summer - which essentially advised the government to press ahead regardless, with some tweaks - only fuelled their determination to highlight what they see as fundamental flaws.

On additional support needs, the number of pupils identified with autism, dyslexia and other conditions continues to increase inexorably. The clamour for more support has been growing.

In further education, funding issues are likely to dominate the year ahead, while another sector feeling the pressure is early years - August 2020 is looming, when the Scottish government’s flagship doubling of free hours for three- and four-year-olds (and some two-year-olds) comes into force, and there is rising concern about the ramifications. Simply put, many fear there will just not be enough staff to cope.

Education secretary John Swinney, meanwhile, recently marked three years in the job. It’s a long time in a ministerial post, especially when you consider that Swinney has to double up as first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s deputy, but his enthusiasm - some would say bullishness - when it comes to Scottish education seems undimmed, despite the protracted death spiral of the government’s Education Bill. He does not seem likely to step aside any time soon.

Predicting anything in politics these days is, of course, a fool’s game, and who knows what the ripple effects of the never-ending Brexit and independence debates will be on Scottish education, not to mention the ascent to prime minister of one Boris Johnson.

It is possible, though, to become too caught up in national debates around education. Every teacher’s job is different, every educator will have their own set of priorities, their own niggles, their own sources of joy and fulfilment that get them through the day - as you’ll see on these pages. To people working in schools and colleges, policy machinations and pedagogical trends may be of comparatively little interest when a child or young adult in front of them is at crisis point, or when the clock is ticking towards midnight and there’s still a pile of marking to get through.

We asked teachers and other educators on Twitter about their biggest hopes for 2019-20, and their top tips for the year. We got a virtual sackload of enlightening replies, covering - among much else - poverty, teacher numbers, staffroom thievery, Brexit, storytelling, mental health and the chaos that can be unleashed by a wasp in the classroom.

But amid the eclectic responses, a theme emerges: the number-one priority of any good teacher is the gaggle of young people they turn up for every day - and that is something that never changes.

Henry Hepburn is news editor at Tes Scotland. He tweets @Henry_Hepburn

This article originally appeared in the 16 August 2019 issue under the headline “New year’s resolutions”

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