Don't let tired old issues disguise real progress

20th December 2013 at 00:00

Smaller class sizes - remember them? It's a promise from another time, when phones were for phoning people, house prices were never going to fall and Lance Armstrong was a force for good.

It's not an issue you'll ever hear the Scottish government bringing up these days, which seems strange since education ministers barely stopped talking about it after the SNP came to power in 2007.

Things have changed, of course. Money is tight, teacher numbers are down and many doubt whether smaller class sizes are that important anyway.

But it's one of the biggest flaws of mainstream politics that our elected representatives cannot be seen to change their minds on anything: to do so is a sign of weakness. So the government takes brickbats for not delivering on a promise - as with class sizes - but cannot bring itself to say, "Look, we've had a think and this isn't really such a priority any more."

The media's main story last week from dozens of pages of national school statistics released by the Scottish government was about class sizes. Yet that issue just isn't in the foreground for people actually working in education, whose focus is on a new curriculum, new qualifications, a supply teaching crisis and changes to terms and conditions.

There was some good news in the data. Exclusions are down - from 27,000 to 22,000 in two years - and 79 per cent of probationers had found work in state schools by September, up from 75 per cent last year. Most strikingly, the number of children being taught in good-quality school buildings has soared by nearly 100,000 in five years (see pages 6-7).

Not to get all Pollyanna about it, but for all Scottish education's problems - well documented in TESS - there are things to be happy about as we head into 2014.

Some of Scotland's most articulate teacher bloggers have shown in recent weeks that healthy scepticism doesn't have to turn into snarling cynicism. English teacher James McEnaney has written forcefully and forensically about problems with the new National 5 qualification, but still concludes: "I ... genuinely believe that the course is far better preparation for a Higher than the old Standard grade."

Biology teacher Fearghal Kelly has written about the much-maligned Glow, the national digital network for schools. He and his students have not used it particularly, preferring Edmodo and Google Apps. But instead of aiming an easy kick at Glow, he defended it and acknowledged that the hard work behind it may yet pay off. "There's a difference between Glow as it is now and what it could be in the future," he wrote.

All of which makes the scoring of political points seem like a sideshow. If you really want to know what's going on in Scottish education, ask a teacher.

Merry Christmas from all at TESS. Here's to a happy and rewarding 2014.

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