Don't panic! Six standing orders to advance

18th December 2009 at 00:00

The Dad's Army of Scottish education has plenty to be lugubrious about this month. The Labour Party's Literacy Commission reported that 18.5 per cent of children in the country leave primary school functionally illiterate - some 13,000 youngsters a year. My secondary teacher colleagues could have told them that without resorting to a commission.

Then the Universities and Colleges Union reported that the UK had slumped to the bottom of international league tables on education participation rates. And Fiona Hyslop was sacked as Education Secretary - sorry, "re- shuffled" - and replaced by Mike Russell.

Don't panic! The First Minister's Council of Economic Advisers, chaired by Sir George Mathewson, has solutions: raise the quality of teaching in schools by measuring the quality of teaching and sacking those who do not come up to scratch, and introduce national prizes for (sic) "top students and top performing schools". So, more of the same carrot-and-stick, target-driven approach which has helped to drive teachers into early retirement these 12 years and more.

For the record, here's one teacher's solutions. Class sizes: if class sizes don't matter, why do the private schools constantly bang on about them in their promotional literature? They do not guarantee educational achievement, but they are a factor. Maximum sizes of 20-25 should become the norm, and not the exception, in primaries and secondaries. Class sizes below 18 will help primary colleagues deliver literacy and numeracy in P1- 3.

Literacy: this must become, once again, the prime goal of primary education. All the critical skills, active and co-operative learning, project work and PowerPoints in the world will be wasted on a pupil who has not achieved a reasonable standard of literacy by P7. It must be defined as the ability to read and write. The current fad, which defines it as the ability to access texts in all their forms, must be shelved. Writing by hand is a kinaesthetic skill which develops handeye co- ordination, spatial awareness and personal skills such as patience and critical self-examination.

Teacher qualifications: in recent years, GTC Scotland has actually diluted the qualifications required to teach in secondary schools. Meanwhile, other nations such as Finland (which consistently tops international education tables) demand that teachers be educated up to Masters level. Scotland should emulate Finland by means of a revived chartered teacher programme stripped of the recent "leadership" requirement, and the provision of interest-free loans for teachers undertaking the programme.

Teacher workload: currently, teachers cannot get on with the job of improving teaching and learning, because of the obsession with target- setting, forward planning, personal learning plans, monitoring, evaluation and auditing, which all get in the way. A teacher's focus should be on producing lessons which motivate pupils. Anything which hinders this should be binned.

Pupil behaviour: according to the Scottish Government, this may be improving. If so, it is not fast enough. The power to exclude pupils sine die into the hands of the education authority must be given to heads. An appeals system, staffed by parents within the authority but not within the school, would be a sensible addition to prevent abuse of power. It would then be for the authority to decide whether the pupil should go to another mainstream school or a specialist behaviour unit.

Educational leadership and collegiality: in recent years, the Scottish Qualification for Leadership has become a "must have" for aspiring headteachers, yet some of the most disastrous and potential heads I have ever encountered possessed the SQH. A new qualification must be developed which focuses on personal leadership qualities, and not bureaucratic abilities. To avoid cronyism, such a programme must be open to any experienced teacher. The prime function of any head must be to create a collegiate school in which good classroom teaching is prized above all else, consigning to the past bureaucracy, abuse of power and bullying in Scottish schools.

Peter Wright is president of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, and writes in a personal capacity.

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