Difficult-to-define problems all lead back to one simple solution

The government is lumbering towards dealing with issues that can be resolved with improved pay and conditions

Henry Hepburn

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As so often with something much-anticipated, the tender document for a fast-track route into teaching was a damp squib.

The reality turned out to be that this new route might provide as few as 20 teachers. For anyone credulous enough to expect a game-changer on teacher numbers, it must have felt like being sucked into a gleaming fast-food joint by adverts for juicy burgers, only to be handed two stale bits of bun and a rubbery disc of disappointment.

Whether Teach First remains interested in such a modest venture remains to be seen. Tes Scotland travelled to Newcastle to find out more about the controversial fast-track training scheme, which sends participants off to work in schools after only a few weeks. We concluded that bringing in Teach First would mark a fundamental shift in what it means to be a teacher in Scotland. But how likely is it to actually happen?

There has been a prevailing narrative recently that the government is contemplating profound changes to Scotland’s relatively homogenous education system. First minister Nicola Sturgeon and her deputy and education secretary John Swinney have themselves repeatedly talked of “radical reform” in the sector.

Beyond the rhetoric, this government seems more minded to ca’ canny. For example, in June it drew back on allowing schools to opt out of local authority control. More recently, it agreed to dilute the influence of imminent “regional improvement collaboratives” after complaints that local authorities would be undermined.

A lack of urgency?

A measured approach to education policy is welcome – one only has to look to England to see the fallout when a government ploughs on with an ideologically driven reform agenda. Sometimes, however, it feels like there is a lack of urgency in Scotland.

Last month I was emailed details of a conference in March with the title “Curriculum for Excellence – The next steps”. Anyone not familiar with Scottish education would assume that CfE was a new venture – not something conceived 15 years ago. By now, you’d have hoped the subtitle to the above conference would be something more like “The final pieces of the jigsaw”.

One of the biggest problems in education is that, being such a complex arena where measures of success are hotly disputed, policy is often built on nebulous aspirations with which few would disagree. We see it in the concept of “wellbeing” in the Named Person scheme. The problem is that no one seems to know exactly what wellbeing is.

Similarly, there is no consensus on how the oft-cited “attainment gap” is defined or measured. So it was welcome to see the government start a consultation last week to establish key measures in bridging this divide, such as three-quarters of school leavers from the poorest backgrounds gaining at least one Higher by 2025. But why are ministers only now on their “defining mission”?

As CfE lumbers on – and the government finally grapples with defining the attainment gap – an elephant in the room is starting to stamp its feet. Teachers’ salaries have been stagnating for years and there is growing unrest about seemingly endless reform. The 2001 McCrone report, which brought landmark improvements to teachers’ pay and conditions, is an increasingly distant memory.

Education is complex, but the formula for making it better is simple: pay teachers well and improve their conditions. Then every other problem – from recruitment to attainment – becomes far easier to solve.


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Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn is the news editor for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Henry_Hepburn

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