Is it too late to save our secondaries?

15th April 2005 at 01:00
Teaching has become hell because of ministers' obsession with the social agenda, says David Halliday

Why is it, that despite the McCrone agreement, an increase in real spending on education and a cascade of initiatives, Scottish secondary education is still drifting - many teachers would say sinking? One indication of the degree of drift was revealed by the study on teachers' perceptions of discipline in Scottish schools. According to this publication, "the percentage of secondary teachers who see discipline as either a serious or very serious problem changed from 34 per cent in 1996 to 59 per cent in 2004".

As one teacher noted: "What I find most exhausting is the low-level constant disruption caused by pupils . . . who will not take responsibility for their behaviour or education." This contrasts with Education Minister Peter Peacock's more upbeat pronouncements and his suspicion regarding the accuracy of such figures. Perhaps this is a case of "human kind cannot bear much reality". In fairness, the Scottish Executive was sufficiently concerned to produce the Better Behaviour, Better Learning strategy and, in January, it set aside an additional pound;35 million for classroom support staff.

Unfortunately, our secondary education, despite such initiatives, is drifting and, as George Bernard Shaw put it, "to be in hell is to drift".

For an increasing number of schools and teachers the constant battle to control, interest and educate their pupils has become hell. For those children keen to learn - marooned in classes where disruption and distraction is the norm - it is hell.

Despite McCrone, there is a teacher shortage and a massive problem looming, due to the profession's age profile and imminent retirements. There are many classes where the quality of education is high; however, this does not conceal the tectonic drift that is taking place.

To understand where we have gone wrong, we need a brief resume of the road we have been travelling. The Executive was determined to confront the social obstacles that undeniably prevent many children from making significant educational progress. The aim of using an integrated approach - educational, social and health - was to raise attainment and achievement for all.

Yet, as the inspectorate candidly stated, after seven years there was "little effect on overall levels of pupil attainment". The believers in this unprecedented attempt at intervention urge us not to lose faith, exhorting us to accept that in the long term the initiative will bear fruit. The more sceptical remember the words of Keynes that "in the long run we are all dead".

That we are confronted by significant social changes which are presenting schools with problems is self-evident. However, I would argue that our response has exacerbated the problem. The reason schools are drifting so worryingly is that, by embracing a wider social agenda, we have inadvertently created immense confusion. Secondary schools in Scotland have lost, or are losing, their raison d'etre of teaching and learning. This was obviously not the intention.

Most of the good intentions to raise attainment and achievement have drowned in a barrage of initiatives. Those areas and schools with the greatest social needs have ironically suffered most from the change in focus. Senior management have become so preoccupied with social issues that schools are beginning to resemble an extension of the social work department rather than educational institutions. The class teacher is no longer the central figure in many schools. The guidance teacher has usurped that role. Education has been marginalised, and the social agenda elevated.

Invariably those in guidance, through no fault of their own, are inadequately trained and drowning, attempting to manage the complexity of society's problems as they are increasingly encountered in schools. Giving priority to addressing the social and emotional needs of pupils has eclipsed their education. Like their colleagues in senior management, guidance teachers spend an increasing time away from traditional teaching and learning.

Instead of schools targeting all their efforts to enable pupils to master physics, history, or home economics, they are focusing on amorphous social issues they are inadequately equipped to address.

As a Church of Scotland report noted, schools are working "to the limits of their capacity" in an attempt to accommodate the social inclusion programme and there are "serious concerns how this will affect the needs of all children". Yet the figures on smoking, drink, drugs, obesity and sexual health show continued, even increasing, deterioration. Sadly, the hope that schools could successfully address these problems now seems naive.

Can we salvage secondary education? Perhaps - but radical surgery is vital.

First - a severe pruning. The unambiguous priority of every secondary school should be to improve teaching and learning, with no new initiatives for at least five years. The guidance system should be dismantled and the staff redeployed as subject teachers (which may go some way to addressing teacher shortages). All teachers should have a pastoral responsibility.

There will be a need to tackle obstacles to educational progress in a more manageable way. Where necessary, non-educational specialists should be employed, working alongside schools. All senior management must become vigorously involved in improving the quality of teaching and learning.

Their priority should be to put forward and implement strategies that motivate teachers to improve teaching and learning.

Simplistic? Unrealistic? I don't think so. An integrated approach can still work, provided there is recognition of the limitations of what schools can deliver. Schools should be about giving all children the best possible education. They should not be permitted to be transformed into a laboratory to tackle society's ills.

As George Bernard Shaw stated: "To be in heaven is to steer." It is time we started to steer a course that will give children a taste of educational heaven rather than hell.

David Halliday teaches at Eyemouth High.

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