What did the education secretary tell teachers today?

Shirley-Anne Somerville addressed the EIS teaching union today – so what did we learn?

Henry Hepburn

Schools in Scotland: What did education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville tell teachers today? (Copyright holder: PA WIRE Copyright notice: PA Wire/PA Images Picture by: Fraser Bremner/Scottish Daily Mail)

Education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville addressed the EIS teaching union's annual general meeting today, and also took questions.

What Shirley-Anne Somerville said about Scottish education in 2021

Here are some of the key issues she covered and what we learned:

Teacher pay

With industrial action over teacher pay having already been discussed at the EIS AGM, Ms Somerville said: "I know that many of you will be frustrated that agreement on a [Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers – SNCT] pay deal has not yet been reached, and, for that, we must apologise that this has been delayed." 

She added: "Outside of London, [Scottish] teachers’ starting pay is now the highest in the UK and I want to ensure that teaching remains an attractive graduate profession."

Permanent teaching jobs

Only days after an open letter was sent to Ms Somerville on behalf of 2,000 teachers in insecure employment, she said: "I acknowledge that there are a significant number of teachers currently working on temporary contracts and I will encourage local authorities to employ more teachers into permanent contracts."

She also repeated the government promise of extra funding for local authorities to increase teacher numbers by 1,000 and classroom assistants by 500, on the way towards the "recruitment of 3,500 additional teachers and classroom assistants over the parliamentary term, [which] is over and above the 1,400 teachers recruited during the pandemic".

During the Q&A with EIS members, the minister said: "I really want local authorities to be encouraging permanent contracts."

Class sizes

One question to Ms Somerville highlighted a lack of progress since a bold SNP manifesto promise to reduce class sizes was made some 20 years ago.

Recent SNP manifestos have been markedly more quiet on class sizes, and Ms Somerville who said there had been a reduction in class sizes but did not specify by which criteria or over which time period would only indicate that, on this, "we are determined to look very carefully at what can be done".

Class contact time and teacher workload  

It was barely noticed during the election campaign this spring  and caused confusion after a blunder in the SNP election manifesto  but the SNP made an ambitious promise on class contact time.

That pledge was confirmed by Ms Somerville today: "We have also committed to reduce teachers’ class contact time by one and half hours, to free up teachers to prepare lessons and improve their skills.

"I recognise that workload is the main factor in teachers’ stress. Reducing class contact time by one and a half hours will create over 2,000 permanent teaching posts and reduce workload. It is for that reason that I want to deliver on this commitment as soon as possible."

Black, Asian and minority ethnic teachers

Ms Somerville said that the number of BAME teachers in Scotland’s schools is "woefully low, with fewer than 2 per cent of teachers identifying as being from a black or minority ethnic background".  

She added: "We also know that there are barriers from the outset, from the low numbers of minority ethnic students undertaking initial teacher education, through to qualified teachers with years of experience, unable to access senior leadership positions."

The education secretary also said that the recommendations in Professor Rowena Arshad's recent Teaching in a Diverse Scotland report "are being taken forward". 

SQA assessment 2021

This has been a huge source of concern and controversy, the full implications of which are still playing out.

Ms Somerville said: "The support and input from the EIS has been invaluable in arriving at the flexible [2021 assessment] model that I firmly believe to be the fairest possible for our young people in the challenging circumstances due to the pandemic."

She was "reassured" by the recent Education Scotland report "on how well the model is being implemented locally".

In particular, she insisted that "local authority officers, headteachers, [Scottish Qualifications Authority] coordinators and teachers have collaborated to ensure that the efforts of young people are appropriately recognised".

She said that she expected arrangements for the much-discussed SQA £400 payment to teachers for extra assessment work "to be finalised as soon as possible".

She also mentioned the two "assessment support days" for work on the 2021 "alternative certification model" (ACM): "I understand that many schools have already made use of these or will be doing so this week."

During the Q&A ,Ms Somerville said that, in the grading of pupils, "Mistakes were made last year in the use of algorithms at the SQA. So this year there is no interference from the SQA or Education Scotland when you’re looking at what grade goes into the SQA."

Reform of the SQA and Education Scotland

After announcing on 3 June that reform would happen, today Ms Somerville said: "This will include looking at the role, remit and purpose of the organisations, as well as considering their functions and governance arrangements. This will be a key priority and will be informed by the findings of the [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development] review due to be published 21 June.

"As part of a reform agenda, we will also devolve even greater powers to schools while intensifying the discussion around school-based decision making."

She added: "I would like to make it clear that reform will not mean extra pressure or work for you at this critical time as we look to [Covid] recovery."

Mental health

Ms Somerville highlighted that, as part of the response to Covid, there had been "new resources specifically on mental health but also on coaching, mentoring [and] a new programme of professional learning for recently qualified teachers".

She said that over 4,200 teachers have benefited from the support for their mental health, adding: "We are working with partners to consider how a similar package can be put in place in advance of the new school year."

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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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