'It's not my fault' is not a fair response to teachers

Many problems pinned on Michael Russell may not be down to him, but that does not mean he cannot help

Politicians are a wily breed, skilled in debate and practised in the arts of taking credit and avoiding blame. There was a classic example in recent weeks, when Scotland saw a record rise in employment. Ah, that goes to show how well Scotland is outperforming the rest of the UK, said first minister Alex Salmond, quick to claim success for the SNP government and an argument for independence. Oh no, it shows how well Scotland is doing as part of the UK, countered the Lib Dem Scottish secretary Michael Moore, on the side of the No campaign. It's little wonder that a fifth of the voters remain undecided.

When it comes to blame, the education secretary has shown himself to be as adroit as the next person at dodging brickbats. In the run-up to the EIS's annual conference in Perth last month, a survey by the union revealed that more than 80 per cent of primary teachers who responded were deeply concerned about the workload generated by Curriculum for Excellence. Ah, that's down to the local authorities and headteachers creating too much red tape, education secretary Michael Russell responded. When the outgoing EIS president highlighted the crisis in supply teaching following cuts to supply teachers' pay - that was down to the local authorities, Mr Russell said. And when teachers protested about rises in their pension contributions and the working age - that was down to the UK government, he insisted.

He is, of course, right to an extent on all counts - as were the Yes and No campaigners in the first example. It just depends how you look at it. But as the minister currently overseeing the implementation of curriculum policies and teachers' pay negotiations, Mr Russell cannot totally absolve himself or his government colleagues of responsibility. Cosla, as the body representing the local councils, was equally entitled to say, as it did, that its hands were tied by the Scottish government's budget settlement, and the government, Cosla and the teaching unions were all partners in the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers that agreed to reduce short-term supply pay in 2011.

What has been more positive has been the EIS's invitation to the minister to attend last month's AGM for the first time and his acceptance - a good move by the new general secretary, Larry Flanagan, and by Mr Russell, who showed himself to be in listening mode. Teachers do not have enough opportunities to put their concerns direct to their political leaders and if the SNP wishes to portray Scotland as a small nation governed by leaders who are of the people and close to the people, then such steps are to be encouraged. There was a time when the Scottish Learning Festival would offer a valuable annual forum for the minister to take questions from the floor. The master of the art was Labour's Peter Peacock, who would jump down from the platform to listen to the teachers; subsequent ministers reverted to a more cautious format. Those days could be numbered, though, as the future of the festival is under review.

However much Mr Russell deflects criticism publicly, what matters now is the negotiating he does privately with finance secretary John Swinney and with Cosla and the unions. The supportive noises he made in Perth, regarding workload, supply and pensions need to be turned into action. If they are not, teachers will take their own form of action at the end of the year, following the overwhelming vote in favour at the EIS conference.

Few will wish to strike at such a precarious time for the first cohort of students preparing for the new National exams next summer, but rarely in the field of education have so many been pushed so far on so many fronts - curriculum, assessment, moderation, pay, pensions. Nor would it go down well with parents who are already anxious about how their children will fare under the new system. The likelier outcome is a work-to-rule, but with more than 671,000 children in Scottish state schools and a million or so parents' lives set to be disrupted, that is a gamble Messrs Russell, Salmond et al will not wish to take in the year of the referendum. Nor would the disruption of school-leaving exams win any favour with the new 16- and 17-year-old voters.

So where does that leave us - or leave Mr Russell? The words "rock" and "hard place" spring to mind. But then he does like a challenge and he has proved himself a skilled negotiator in the past, coming up with last-minute monies to strike a deal. A compromise on supply teachers' pay would help to provide essential cover for absent staff, lifting unnecessary pressure off teachers and school managers; it would also help to release teachers from the classroom to come to terms with difficult issues such as the moderation of new courses. Strong, urgent action through Education Scotland to ensure that local authorities and schools cut the box-ticking exercises that are a hangover from the old 5-14 curriculum would also help. And a firm package of proposals to assist teachers who cannot face working until their late sixties would be a start on the pensions front.

These matters may, as Mr Russell said, be down to others, but they are not totally beyond his influence. Times may also be hard financially - but therein lies the art of the true politician.

Gillian Macdonald, Education journalist, is a former editor of TESS.

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