A better deal for teachers is a good deal better for Scotland

25th February 2011 at 00:00
Ten years on, the review of the national teachers' agreement must not undo the progress we have made in raising standards

Excellence in education is at the heart of any successful country, and central to that success is a professional, motivated teaching workforce. It was this ambition for Scotland to be the best that was behind the "Teaching Profession for the 21st Century" agreement in 2001. As Education Minister at the time, I was determined to implement the principles of the McCrone Report and end 20 years of division and decline.

As a young teacher, I had seen demoralisation set in. And declining morale and lack of investment had destroyed the prospects of a generation of young Scots.

Our education system, once the envy of the world, was in trouble. It was essential to restore pride and professionalism to teaching and reward teachers properly. It was a fresh start for Scottish education, and it has delivered.

Teaching is now a profession of first choice for many of our brightest young Scots, instead of a last resort for graduates who cannot find any other career.

Teaching standards have risen over the past decade; perhaps not as far as they can, but our classrooms are much better places than they were.

Jobs for probationers, continuing professional development, improved management, better teacher training and new discipline for those not able to do the job were all as important as the salary increase and the guaranteed preparation and marking time.

There have been problems, of course. Many of Scotland's 32 local authorities lack the leadership and the capacity to drive change and reform. And I think it is clear that 32 separate education authorities are now unsustainable if we want Scottish education to achieve excellence.

The arrangements for professional development took some time to put in place across Scotland and I don't think they are satisfactory yet. The opportunity for dealing with teacher competence is not being fully used.

And I am concerned that there are some teachers who see the hours in the working week as a rigid maximum that will not be breached, rather than a minimum professional standard.

But with new school buildings, higher teacher numbers, the expansion of nursery and special needs, and action on discipline all building on the 2001 teaching agreement, most of the past decade has been positive.

Ten years on, though, the picture looks less hopeful. The lack of priority for education in successive recent Scottish budgets, the continuing confusion over the new "curriculum" and the slowdown in building replacements are not a good backdrop against which to review the 2001 agreement. The McCormac review must not tear up the McCrone principles; nor should it be used as an excuse for cost-cutting.

Instead, the review must build on the key principles and the foundations from 2001. Good teachers, motivated and well resourced, are key to the delivery of better education. And I implore teachers and politicians alike to remember what must lie at the heart of any good education system: a service which delivers for all our children, not just the brightest and best.

Far too many young Scots still leave school with no options, a situation that has worsened since the recession. I am concerned that the focus on those youngsters not in employment, education or training - the neet generations - is not as sharp as it was in 2006 when I made it a national priority to end this terrible waste of lives.

The latest figures from the Scottish Annual Population Survey (July 2009 to June 2010) show a significant rise in the size of this group of young people. In 2007-08, there were 29,000 youngsters classed as neet and the numbers were at last going down. By June 2010, that figure had risen to 39,000 - 10,000 more young lives being wasted.

Tackling this issue is a moral and economic imperative for Scotland. Just as no country will succeed if its teaching workforce is demotivated, no country will prosper if a significant minority of its young people are left to fail.

This waste of human potential is a personal tragedy, but it is also a tragedy for Scotland.

If we are serious about creating a country where all youngsters can flourish, we must invest more, not less, in early interventions. The foundation of a good education is not set at secondary school, but in the early years of primary and in nursery.

We must strengthen our efforts to ensure that young children do not fall behind their classmates. Basic numeracy and literacy skills are essential priorities for Scottish education, and we must find new ways to help those children whose families cannot or will not provide them with the support and security to learn.

My years as a teacher were some of the most fulfilling years of my life. Yet they were often frustrating within a system that seemed to reward failure. It was this frustration that led me into politics, as I was determined to play my part in changing Scottish education for the better.

The agreement in 2001, the investment that followed, and the More Choices, More Chances neet strategy in 2006 were elements of a strategy that was designed to deliver a world-class education system for Scotland again.

Now, as Scotland struggles to achieve economic recovery, it is the worst time to cut investment in learning. The policy and spending commitments of the next four years will decide the fate of a generation of children. We must, for their sake and for our country's sake, get it right.

Jack McConnell, Former First Minister of Scotland

Jack McConnell was First Minister of Scotland from 2001 to 2007.

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