Letters to McConnell

10th November 2000 at 00:00
First Minister Henry McLeish and his team are saying they want to respond to the views of the people who elected them. So Raymond Ross asked voters in schools what they would most like to say to Jack McConnell, the new Minister for Education

Dear minister, I am a sixth year pupil and I have to say that Sam Galbraith, as Children and Education Minister, and the Scottish Qualifications Authority failed. They did not achieve the correct or expected results, like thousands of senior pupils throughout Scotland. They have paid the ultimate price, like thousands of senior pupils throughout Scotland.

Now you, Minister, must complete your course without the so-called safety net of an appeals procedure. You must get straight As at the first sitting.

Your task is unenviable. You must act quickly on the investigation's findings of this year's crisis. You must reassure myself and my peers who wholeheartedly subscribed to our education system only to be cast aside, unrecognised as the main players.

After being let down once again, this time by the appeals procedure, you owe a basic duty to myself and my fellow students to put right all those doubted and unjustified results; results that neither students, further education establishments nor employers recognise as being correct.

From the mess of this summer, you must unravel a thread of decency and return exam papers to students. This task is immense, expensive and time-consuming, but in my opinion it is the only way to make right this terrible wrong.

This time next year, after I have completed my sixth year course, I want you and a revamped SQA to recognise the hard work and commitment exerted by my teachers and fellow students. You must allow us the chance of success that was denied us in 2000.

Jennifer Bryce S6 pupil Cumnock Academy, East Ayrshire

As a student teacher approaching the end of my training, I feel that in order to encourage people into the teaching profession there are various issues which must be addressed.

Pay is a factor which discourages students from joining the profession. Starting salaries are relatively low, considering the amount of time that is spent studying at university or college, and it is unfair that students graduating together go onto different salaries allocated according to age.

I think that some sort of remuneration for student teachers should be in place: student nurses receive money, as do student teachers in England.

I think teacher training could be improved. Rather than doing three or four years at university and one year at college, it would be more beneficial if students were continuously doing practical work in relation to teaching throughout their degree programme.

Teacher training should also offer an opportunity to learn about school administration and the other aspects of teaching which occur outside the classroom.

Teacher training institutions should be making students aware that there may be very few job opportunities teaching some subjects, such as Spanish and Italian, and encouraging them to study a second subject if it is likely there will be very little work in their chosen one.

Finally, many students leave university or college and begin working on a temporary contract. Sometimes these temporary contracts can last for a few years. Personally, I think there should be a time limit placed on them.

Jacqueline Sharp Student teacher St Margaret's High School, North Lanarkshire

We have 360 pupils in our primary school, divided into 12 classrooms. There are two classroom assistants, of whom I am one. Between us we work 55 hours a week and our time is divided throughout the entire school, from classroom to canteen and beyond.

Something puzzles me: who did the 55 hours before our employment commenced? We are the first of our kind in our school.

The pressures are heavy on teachers, ancillary staff and pupils. Large classes equal large workloads.

I know we can't be everywhere. We've tried it and, I'm sorry, it just can't be done. However dedicated we are, and however creative the timetabling, we cannot do everything and be everywhere when we are needed.

The difference in skills required from P1 through to P7 can be at times demanding. For the children to benefit from the system, we need smaller class sizes. If this is not possible, we need more classroom assistants. Every class should have help, not just one hour here and there.

I feel very strongly that the emphasis should be on the pupil-staff ratio. Lower it and the rest will follow. After all, the principal reason for being here is to contribute to the needs of the child.

Susan Shiell Classroom assistant Duns Primary School, Scottish Borders

My first request is not specific to my being a first-year probationer teacher but applies to all professionals: I want a salary in proportion to workload and in recognition of actual hours worked. This would help to recruit more young graduates to teaching.

By all means cut teachers' holidays if pay is to increase, but these lost holidays could ensure more non-contact time. As an English teacher, there is simply not enough time in the school week for me to complete all the marking required.

A guarantee of a fixed term of employment to complete probation should be a fundamental issue for the Scottish Executive. This will ensure more settled, relaxed probationers are given a more consistent level of on-the-job training, making for better trained teachers in the long run.

Teacher education should take place over a longer period than 36 weeks. At college, more practical training should be offered at the expense of tutorial talks, where the same activities are frequently duplicated.

More classroom time is also necessary in school blocks, as teaching and observing for 20 periods per week in no way prepares trainees for a full contact week with the associated marking and paperwork.

There should be payment in recognition of extra-curricular activities. This social aspect of the school is the most important activity to a significant minority of children and at this unacademic level they may feel included in school life. These social aspects of a child's education should not be neglected for the sake of a few pounds from government for overtime pay.

Speaking of overtime, could teachers with heavy marking burdens claim for more cash?

David Gilchrist Probationer teacher, Greenock High School, Inverclyde

As a special needs assistant, I feel we need time so that teachers are prepared and understand the specific special needs of the children I am supporting. The pupils should be given differentiated worksheets and not some 10-year-old dog-eared photocopy (some children I work with have visual difficulties).

Our aim is to encourage and allow these young people to be as independent as possible. How can they achieve this if time and resources are not in place to provide the tools to enable them to work and fit into the mainstream class discreetly? We need to provide material that is aimed at teenagers; colourful, up-to-date and interesting but with appropriate levels of attainment.

I would like weekly departmental meetings (ours are held once every two to three weeks) and I want weekly supervision. At the moment I only have half-an-hour once a fortnight, if I'm lucky.

I work with a lot of demanding children; some are emotionally damaged. I need to keep myself safe so I can continue to work. I want untouchable time built into the timetable for this support.

It goes without saying that I would like a level of pay that reflects the standard of work I do.

Oh, yes, and I'd like a permanent contract. Have you ever tried getting a mortgage without one?

Susan Draper Special needs assistant Boroughmuir High School, Edinburgh

If you are serious about improving Scottish education, then please don't talk at teachers at arm's length through layers of advisers. Come and talk to us at the chalk face. Deal with our frustration about not being able to do a job to full potential.

Accept as false the institutional "truth" that teachers are the limiting factor in pupil achievement, with its consequent assumption that if you criticise and threaten teachers, gains in pupil success will be guaranteed. We weren't the limiting factor in the SQA's failure.

Value teachers and take on board their years of experience when establishing policy, instead of expecting them obediently to react to complex schemes - with exponential workloads - in which they are viewed as teaching components and the pupils as assessable units. Case in point: 5-14 environmental studies documents.

Appreciate that teaching is not a paper exercise and is in need of urgent funding for basics, as well as information technology. Further, recognise that any lesson is the tip of the iceberg, with time needed either side of it in order to be effective, and allow us this time, instead of wishing to control us more. Then, as partners, we could improve education.

Dr John Wheeler Principal teacher, biology Grangemouth High School, Falkirk

I welcome the appointment of someone with a practical knowledge of schools to the education portfolio. I hope you will always remember your decisions affect people, many of them pupils in secondary school. In recent times they have been badly served. The outrageous SQA scandal means that, six months after the exams, some still do not have a final decision on their results.

Decisive action is required to ensure our young people are never treated again in this way.

I hope, Jack, you will be a listening minister, not in any perfunctory way but as genuinely heeding the legitimate concerns of practising teachers. Their lucid and percipient comments on the SQA administration and the complexities and assessment of Higher Still are valid.

A period of stability and consolidation in Scottish schools is essential. Initiatives such as the 5-14 curriculum, Higher Still, development planning, target setting and social inclusion have imposed a very heavy and challenging workload on teachers; and the challenges in the urban areas do differ from those in leafy suburbs.

Finally, you must give an early response to the McCrone committee's proposals and pay all teachers a professional salary now.

Donald McPhail Depute headteacher Govan High School, Glasgow

As you take on your new responsibilities for education in Scotland, I would urge you to consider the following points.

The Scottish Executive needs to formulate a cohesive development plan for further initiatives and developments in Scottish education, a plan with a realistic timescale to allow developments to be phased in properly after thorough piloting, thus avoiding the present situation of initiatives tumbling into schools on top of each other with not enough time for local authorities and schools to get to grips with them properly before the next one arrives.

National developments should also be supported by a centrally co-ordinated and funded resource bank as well as management studies and research to demonstrate the viability of planned developments. This would avoid the need for councils and schools continually to reinvent the wheel and would help to provide a degree of continuity for pupils living in an increasingly mobile population.

The quality of teacher training, probationer support and continuing professional development needs to be much better and more consistent across the country. We not only need to recruit more young graduates but, perhaps more importantly, to retain them once they are in the profession by providing realistic salaries and clear career opportunities.

I sincerely hope you will take heed of McCrone's findings and fund the recommendations as a package of investment for the future of Scottish education.

Moira Leslie Headteacher, Raigmore Primary School, Highland

I feel you need to put teachers' professional development at the forefront of your strategy with the same level of commitment as is being given to clearing up the SQA debacle.

With the exception of their college years, few teachers get the chance to develop their skills in any systematic way. Instead, development time is given over to producing or adapting materials for national initiatives such as Higher Still and the problematic, yet inherently worthwhile, 5-14 curriculum. McCrone's call for sabbaticals is a small but admirable step in the right direction.

Staff are working longer hours to shore up deficiencies inherent in the system and too much is run on a shoestring. McCrone's suggestion of bursars for schools is attractive but more needs to be done to create time for teachers beyond their classroom commitments.

I feel, Minister, that you should consider a model where schools close early once a week to allow regular staff meetings, working groups and high quality training to take place. Staff development should not take place at the end of a busy teaching day.

Finally, many schools still experience real financial problems despite a range of government cash injections. The annual shopping list for departmental requirements is sophisticated and expensive. Gone are the days where chalk, paper and a few extra sets of textbooks would get you by. We need to establish more effective funding arrangements for schools which go beyond ephemeral initiatives such as the Excellence Fund.

Graham Thomson Headteacher Alford Academy, Aberdeenshire

School secretaries' activities have seen considerable changes in recent years. No longer are we in the office just to answer the telephone, collect the dinner money and stick plasters on sore knees.

Since the introduction of devolved school management in the early 1990s, secretaries have taken on a role similar to that of a bursar. We are expected to control and monitor staffing and a wide range of non-staffing budgets, such as energy, telephones, capitation, property maintenance, furniture and so on.

As workloads for teaching staff have increased, there are now aspects of a secretary's job which were once dealt with by management. For example, primary school secretaries have a responsibility to ensure that all enrolment procedures run smoothly throughout the year, as well as overseeing the yearly P1 enrolment.

A lot of training and time is spent on ensuring the school's data system is managed effectively.

The secretary is also expected to provide appropriate and effective supervision for additional support staff, clerical or auxiliary.

Despite all these changes, there has been little recognition for secretaries. In a recent review of secretaries' workloads, it was proposed that our time in a large primary school should be cut to 28 hours per week. Surely this is not the way forward.

I would ask you, Minister, to give secretaries the status they deserve, along with increased hours, more training in financial management and, last but not least, a higher or more progressive salary scale.

Margaret Campbell School secretary Stenhouse Primary School, Edinburgh

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