'Make reducing teachers' contact time the priority'

Debate raged last week about the state of Scottish education – but Kenny Pieper says it missed the most important point

Kenny Pieper

Why reducing teachers' contact time should be top priority

Scottish teachers have among the highest contact times in the world. You may or may not be shocked by that but it goes straight to the heart of the issues we have.

Teaching is a hard job, a demanding job. But we get the holidays, don’t we? Yes, but that doesn't change that there is a health and wellbeing time bomb in our classrooms as we put pressure on ourselves to give the children in front of us the best educational experience possible. 

I’ve thought for some time that we are destroying ourselves trying to fit the ambitious, sprawling hopes and dreams of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) into structures incapable of coping with that change, at a time of rabid austerity. Indeed, if you were to choose a point in history when you wanted to radically reinvent your education system, this decade might have been the worst time to do so.

Background: Teaching time way above average in Scotland 

Attainment in Scotland: Claims about improvement 'not fully accurate'

The report on CfE by the University of Dundee's Professor Jim Scott, which got so much attention last week, should ring some alarm bells but we shouldn’t view it as a conclusive endpoint. We should be wary that our confirmation bias can, on occasion, encourage us to leap on results that appear to fit with our own thoughts.

This was clear on social media last week as people pounced on details that echoed "what I have always thought". We miss an opportunity if we jump to conclusions without hearing all sides.

There are issues, of course: we struggle with them every day. They are serious and cannot be ignored. But let’s listen to every voice. With four of his colleagues, Professor Mark Priestley from the University of Stirling followed up Professor Scott’s paper with an alternative set of findings, which paint a much rosier picture of the curriculum. Young people are not as disadvantaged educationally as we might have been led to believe; attainment is much greater than we might think at times. But the details on both sides get lost in the maelstrom of the daily demands on teachers.

And that brings me back to contact time. A new, redesigned portal for CfE was released a couple of months back and it changed everything, didn’t it? Thought not. I’m unaware of any full-time classroom teacher who has had time to spend looking at it, never mind contemplating its use. It’s possible that it could be transformational; it’s possible it could provide us with the ideas to really address the issues with CfE. But if there is no time in our day to even access it, like much of the output from Education Scotland, it will be left on a pile, ultimately going nowhere.

In a year when dealing with workload is supposed to be our priority, the real issue is something schools can’t help with directly, I’m afraid: we need more teachers. If we had more teachers and less contact time, we could read all these reports, discuss new thinking and come to informed conclusions.

So, come to me with all these documents later – first, sort out contact time.

Kenny Pieper is a secondary teacher in Scotland

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