McCormac comes under teachers' spotlight

23rd September 2011 at 01:00
What do education leaders and the people at the chalkface think of last week's crucial report on their working terms and conditions? TESS reporters investigate

The McCormac report's exhortations on flexibility and professionalism are ringing round the staffroom of every Scottish school.

The big question facing those at the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers (SNCT), who will work out the detail of the next teachers' agreement in time for implementation in August 2012, is what to keep and what to reject in a report which many feel is short on detail.

But as negotiators square up to the most important talks in a decade, they should ponder the mistakes which are said to have been made 10 years ago, when the McCrone report spawned A Teaching Profession for the 21st Century. If, indeed, it was meant to create a workforce fit for purpose for this century, why has it had to be reworked a decade into the century?

There are clear suggestions throughout the McCormac review that the McCrone agreement, as A Teaching Profession for the 21st Century came to be known, fell short in a number of areas.

Gerry McCormac, chair of the review, made it clear last week that he felt it lacked flexibility regarding teachers' working practices, particularly primary teachers' rigidly-policed non-contact time.

His report refers specifically to the fact that Stage 4 of the McCrone agreement - the final transitional stage when boundaries between the various elements of teachers' non-class contact time were supposed to melt away - was never reached by the SNCT.

Had this transition taken place, teachers might not now be discussing the use of unsupervised "external experts" in their classrooms, rolling blocks of non-contact time into a large chunk, or even facing restrictions on their previous freedom to do marking and preparation at a time and place of their choosing.

According to John Stodter, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, it was always going to be difficult to implement all the targets envisaged in the McCrone agreement.

"Because of the way that Scotland is set up, it is difficult to make significant change because of the hoops you have to go through - and the changes in the politics surrounding it," he says.

Changes in local and national politics led to a lack of continuity in leadership, he says. Both the McCormac and the Donaldson reports will need continuity of political vision for at least five years if they are to reach fruition, he predicts.

He understands why the original teachers' agreement sought to standardise and protect working hours in 2001, but feels it created a mentality where teachers stuck to their working terms and conditions religiously.

The fact that Annex E - which listed all the things teachers should not do - was included in an agreement for a professional group was symptomatic of the context negotiators were working in a decade ago, he says.

With the benefit of hindsight, the McCrone agreement should perhaps have set out in two-year stages exactly when more flexibility in working practices should have been brought in, he adds.

Drew Morrice, EIS assistant secretary, argues that the McCormac committee failed to look at the evidence explaining why the SNCT never got around to dismantling the barriers to more flexible working practices.

"Criteria were set out in the 2001 agreement - for example, the outcome of the sample workload survey - which confirmed that the 2001 agreement was no better or worse than previous agreements in controlling teacher workload," he says.

"A pragmatic view was taken that there was not enough evidence to move to Stage 4. But there was also a recognition that even if we moved to Stage 4, you would only have created an argument about how you set aside time for teachers' preparation and correction."

In retrospect, the McCrone agreement should have allowed for more non- class contact time, he says, but politically, he believes that would have been difficult. The problem with flexibility, he says, is that someone has got to give it a practical effect.

"It's theoretically possible to create more flexibility but there are two dangers: you get locked into a difficulty in operating timetable arrangements, particularly in secondary schools; and that encourages people to start clock-watching."

The McCormac committee also explicitly criticises the chartered teacher programme, arguing that "the widely held view is that the existing cohort of chartered teachers does not singularly represent the best teachers in Scotland".

There are several reasons for this, says the McCormac report:

  • The means of entry to the scheme when it was first created;
  • The self-selection process for entry did not provide a sufficiently robust means of screening applicants;
  • Some of the best teachers, for a variety of reasons, did not embark on it.
    • John Stodter, of ADES, also argues that a major flaw in the 2001 agreement was its failure to control the budgetary cost of chartered teachers.

      The EIS argues the CT programme could yet be salvaged and that the McCormac review failed to take into consideration the changes and potential impact made to the code of practice and standard for chartered teachers introduced two years ago.

      Ann Ballinger, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, also believes the CT scheme could be rescued, but believes its biggest mistake was to be too much of an academic exercise which paid too little heed to excellent classroom practice.

      "Self-selection was a problem in some cases, but it should not be simply within the gift of a headteacher. There should be certain criteria, such as known ability or recognised ability within the school that you perform very well as a classroom teacher," she argues.

      McCormac sets out the clear ambition that teaching should aspire to being a masters-level profession - but in tough financial times, there is no carrot being offered of enhanced salary to those who go the extra academic mile, only the professional pride of having improved.

      The Association of Chartered Teachers Scotland (ACTS) this week launched its campaign to save the chartered teacher programme. It argues that the recommendation for abolition, made by the McCormac review, is not supported by the evidence.

      A CT Futures Summit, to be held in Stirling on 8 October, will examine ways of developing a blueprint for the future of the programme, based around existing good practice and "recognition that there is strong demand for ongoing development and change to the scheme", says David Noble, ACTS chair.

      Another aspect of the McCrone agreement - the job-sizing toolkit - has been criticised almost from day one. Critics said it was impenetrable and created by outside consultants (PWC - PricewaterhouseCoopers) who did not understand the education system. Various anomalies have been pointed out - notably, a depute in a large school being paid more than the headteacher of a smaller one.

      Now that it is up for grabs again, this time when councils face huge financial pressure, the danger is that there could be more losers than winners.


      There was a need for a national review to reflect the impact of Curriculum for Excellence on teaching - just not this review.

      That was the view of three class teachers at Victoria Primary in Falkirk, who spoke to TESS this week, having read the McCormac review from cover to cover.

      There were positives, agreed P2 teacher Jackie Dunn, 26; P4 teacher Fiona Caygill, 28; and P7 teacher Katie Connolly, 23. Continuing professional development needed to be "more rigorous and relevant" to ensure it benefited pupils, said Miss Dunn.

      The three teachers were glad to see that probationers would continue spending fewer hours in the classroom than fully-qualified colleagues, allowing them crucial preparation time.

      But they had a number of concerns: they found the report vague and open to potentially-damaging interpretation in too many places, while the teacher professionalism espoused on the report's surface seemed undermined by some of its detail.

      They were vociferous about the suggestion that teachers should remain on school premises for the whole of the pupil day. This, they argued, contradicted McCormac's message about placing trust in teachers.

      The prospect of outside experts taking classes on their own also raised alarm bells. While they agreed there was a role for people with specialist skills and knowledge, the teachers objected to the idea that anyone could be parachuted into a classroom without the years of training and experience of behaviour management that teachers possessed.

      Such recommendations seemed based on the outdated notion that education was about merely "filling a jug" with knowledge, said Mrs Connolly, while Miss Caygill wondered who would get the visitors up to speed with the demands of the classroom: "Are we meant to be teaching them how to teach?"

      While none of the three was a chartered teacher, they all agreed there remained a need for a scheme that widened career opportunities. Police forces could provide a model, suggested Miss Caygill, as they have several divisions that allow career progression without aiming for the chief constable's job.

      They emphasised that they were not jaded teachers with no interest in new initiatives, being steeped in Curriculum for Excellence. But all three said McCormac made them feel less secure.

      "We are young and always looking at the positives in things," Mrs Connolly said. "But we are professional and, having read every page of this report, we can pick things apart. There are bits that are very concerning, and there's a lot of it which is very vague and doesn't really give us a clear idea of what's going to happen to us."

      Their head, Gillian Purves, 47, who is also an executive member of the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland, was more sanguine about McCormac, which she saw as a progression from the 2001 teachers' agreement.

      "In terms of building the professionalism of teaching, it's definitely very positive," she said - although she added the caveat that "all recommendations are open to interpretation".

      Miss Purves was hopeful that CPD - which is to be linked to a revitalised system of professional review and development and a new set of GTCS professional standards - would become "more meaningful".

      The acknowledgment that non-contact time could lead to high-quality experiences for children was welcomed by her. She was pleased, too, that the job-sizing toolkit would be scrutinised, pointing to anomalies in salaries across Scotland's authorities.

      As a teacher she said she would be concerned about the removal of Annex E, which lists the tasks teachers are not expected to perform. She was also uneasy about the suggestion that teachers must be on the premises during the pupil day.


      The mood in the conference room at Harris Academy in Dundee was apprehensive. The five teachers, there to share their views on the McCormac report, agreed that its vagueness worried them most - although its general themes were on the right track.

      "My gut reaction is, yes - but where does this go next?" said Deborah Reaper, 40, principal teacher of modern languages. "There is an acknowledgment in it that we have moved on from McCrone and are doing a lot of good things. But we still need to do a lot more, and the lack of direction doesn't really help."

      "You want to have direction," agreed Sam Hands, 31, an unpromoted English teacher. "Everyone agrees you need to have continued development of the professionalism in teaching, but we want to have a clear set of goals. I don't think it has those."

      Andy Campbell, 53, who recently celebrated 25 years as an unpromoted computing studies teacher, said the vagueness surrounding some recommendations would worry teachers.

      "Performance appraisal - that is going to worry a lot of people," he said. And drawing a parallel with the chartered teacher scheme, which McCormac recommends should be discontinued, he questioned the recommendation that teachers should work towards a masters qualification, arguing the time spent might not benefit pupils' learning experience.

      There was concern, too, about how teachers would in future be rewarded for good performance.

      "Although they want to discontinue the chartered teacher scheme, they still want to have some sort of professional recognition. What on earth does that mean? Recognition in what way? Is it going to be a promoted position? Is it going to be an extra day off?" asked Mr Hands.

      The group had their own suggestions, not all serious - from "teacher of the month" schemes, to handing out star badges and stripes. Generally, though, they liked the idea of temporary promotions.

      "If this went ahead, it would encourage those who were maybe a bit reticent of leading an area, whatever it might be, to take on responsibility, and that has to be a positive step," Mr Hands said.

      "There has been no real way for people within four or five years of their teaching career to push themselves and progress. You need that incentive," added Mrs Reaper.

      There were more serious concerns about the suggestion that non-teachers should be brought in to deliver parts of the curriculum. The school already involved experts - pastoral and curricular - said depute head Angela White.

      "Is that what it means, or does it mean something else? Does that mean so- and-so is a horrendous teacher, so we will not have him teaching that, we will just bring someone in off the street?" she asked.

      The recommendation that teachers should normally remain in school during school hours has also raised eyebrows. Probationer Stewart Walker, 22, said: "People in the department were saying they like to take their marking home. Does this now mean they have to do it in school?"

      Mrs Reaper would love to have a couple of hours to work with her whole department. She worried, however, that this proposal would lead to teachers losing their non-contact time, especially as the review suggests non-contact hours should be aggregated over a longer period. "That will affect quality of teaching and learning," she warned.

      Changes to non-contact time might be an attempt to facilitate cover in difficult staffing situations, warned Mrs White. "When push comes to shove, the school has got to run, but my worry is that collegiate working, CPD and so on will go by the wayside."

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