Gauntlet thrown down to teachers

Attainment gap must be priority, GTCS chief tells newly qualified

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The most crucial role for new teachers is to help close the persistent educational divide between children from rich and poor backgrounds in Scotland, the General Teaching Council for Scotland's chief executive has said.

Ken Muir's forceful advice to a gathering of newly qualified teachers in Edinburgh last week was that their first challenge should be "closing the gap between the attainment and achievement of the most deprived areas, compared with those from the least deprived areas".

His audience comprised teachers at the end of their probation year; one was invited from each of Scotland's local authorities. The attendees were specially selected from about 2,200 probationers in the country because of their exceptional performance on the Teacher Induction Scheme.

Mr Muir said that he had been a teacher in North Lanarkshire decades earlier, and that from speaking to a probationer working in the same area today it was clear that the area remained blighted by "huge deprivation". He added: "Closing the attainment gap has been a challenge and will continue to be a challenge for all of you."

Mr Muir said that "unfortunately" Curriculum for Excellence was too often interpreted primarily as a vehicle to boost the prospects of pupils who aspired to go to university. "Youngsters who get five As in a single sitting will continue to do that under whatever curriculum regime," he argued.

He added that where CfE would "prove its worth" was in improving the life chances of young people in the most disadvantaged parts of the country.

Guest speaker Jackie Brock, chief executive of charity Children in Scotland, told the probationers that they should be "proud" to enter a profession that put social justice at the top of its list of values - a reference to the GTCS "standards for registration".

The comments from Mr Muir and Ms Brock came after TESS reported on recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation research into poverty ("Our eyes are shut to the realities of poverty", News focus, 13 June). This suggested that there was a dearth of information on whether the many educational projects initiated in Scotland to combat disadvantage in recent years had worked.

Meanwhile, the experiences of the teachers at the GTCS event frequently chimed with Mr Muir's message.

Hannah McManus said that Burnfoot Community School in the Borders town of Hawick, where she taught, was often dismissed as being in a "rough area" and that pupils did not consider themselves "clever".

On being asked what they considered to be clever, her P7s cited Shakespeare and maths, but reacted with dismay when Ms McManus took this as a challenge to introduce them to Shakespeare. Pupils thrived, however, when they explored the similarities between Hamlet and Disney film The Lion King, and were soon jostling to get hold of new consignments of children-friendly Shakespeare adaptations, she said.

Ms McManus linked students' enthusiasm for Shakespeare to improved class outcomes, including better spelling test scores.

Lorna Luke, a probationer at Sorn Primary School in East Ayrshire, said the highlight of her year had been pupils raising hundreds of pounds by compiling a recipe book. Some of the high-profile contributors included Scotland's first minister Alex Salmond (Cullen skink) and businessman Sir Tom Hunter ("cheesy beanos").

Elsewhere, Robert Stewart, a drama teacher who had been allocated Coatbridge High School in North Lanarkshire, said his best moment had been starting a drama department from scratch when he realised that the school did not have one.

Karen Arthurs, a primary probationer in Renfrewshire, said the highlight of her year had been publishing a resource on the TES Connect website about biographical writing, which had attracted 2,600 views and was being used by teachers as far afield as Canada.

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