In March, I – along with EIS union general secretary Larry Flanagan and one of our primary headteachers, Jane Gray from Inzievar and Saline primary schools, in Fife – had the privilege of attending this year’s International Summit on the Teaching Profession (ISTP) held in Helsinki, Finland.
Only countries with the best performing or rapidly improving education systems, as defined by the results of the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), are invited to attend. The annual gathering is a truly unique opportunity that allows ministers of education and union leaders to come together and share best practice, and I was delighted to represent Scotland as one of the top-performing nations in the world.
The theme for this year’s event was the future of teaching and learning. Over the course of three days, we participated in sessions on the importance of collaborative leadership within education, building strong foundations in early childhood learning and sustainable education in a rapidly changing world. We were also able to visit Finnish schools and meet with Finnish educators. The key message I took home from these enlightening encounters is the importance of trust. Finnish teachers are fully empowered and operate in a climate of trust and teacher agency. Scotland can certainly learn from this.
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Three commitments for Scottish education
As part of this year’s summit, we agreed three commitments of joint working for the year ahead between the Scottish government and teaching unions which will strengthen the teaching profession in Scotland and support the delivery of excellence and equity for all our children and young people.
Firstly, we will work together to create a system-wide culture of empowerment for our teachers and schools to ensure that the key decisions that will allow our young people to reach their potential are made as close to them as possible.
We have worked hard to reduce teacher workload and remove unnecessary bureaucracy from the role in recent years but greater empowerment within the profession is a further vital factor in supporting teachers to take decisions about their own workload and to challenge any practice that is not focused on enhancing learning and teaching.
At the very heart of our empowering schools agenda is the ambition that decisions about the day-to-day life of a school are taken by those who know young people best – their teachers. Collaborative working is key to ensuring that we achieve this aim, and schools, headteachers and local authorities all have a role to play in delivering an empowered system that will allow our young people to flourish.
Secondly, we will jointly work to guarantee that a career in teaching remains a trusted, attractive, highly qualified and varied vocation – recognising that this is essential to transform the lives of children and young people in Scotland.
Obviously, pay is an important part of ensuring that a career in teaching is attractive. Following more than 12 months of negotiations between teaching unions and national and local government, I am pleased to say that we have reached a final agreement on teachers’ pay. It provides certainty and sets a shared agenda on addressing workload, additional support for learning and empowering schools for the next two years.
Our deal delivers the pay rise that our teachers deserve and the agreed starting salary highlights the immense value we place on our teaching professionals and is competitive in the wider graduate workforce. With the pay increase effective from 1 April, I’m pleased to say that teachers across all of Scotland will shortly see backdated money going into their bank accounts.
But I recognise that pay is not the only factor that makes teaching a rewarding career, so I look forward to receiving the recommendations of the independent panel on teacher career pathways before the summer. This work has the potential to enhance the career-long opportunities open to teachers, which I recognise is of key importance.
Our third and final commitment for the year ahead is to continue to jointly support the crucial role of the early level of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) as the foundation for the best outcomes for children. CfE's early level has a vital role in shaping the entire learner journey and ensuring that every child in Scotland has an equal chance of success, no matter their circumstance.
I look forward to working closely with all professional associations to ensure that these measures are fully implemented in the coming year, which will support our ongoing work and ultimate aim of empowering teachers to help transform the lives of young people.
There has been much debate on subject choice in recent weeks – I welcome and strongly agree with the EIS contribution that we need to move the discussion forward.
A key part of our empowering schools agenda is giving schools the freedom, through CfE, to design a three-year senior phase of a range of courses which best meets the needs of their learners. What matters is the qualifications and awards that pupils leave school with – not only what they study in S4. Last year we saw a record number of learners going on to positive destinations, including work, training or further study. Wherever possible, schools should ensure that young people can choose their preferred subjects in the senior phase, working with partners to make their offer as broad as possible.
The system in Scotland is performing well, and sharing best practice with our international counterparts can only serve to further strengthen our reputation as a nation of educational excellence.
John Swinney is Scotland’s education secretary and deputy first minister