Out of touch and hearing

9th October 1998 at 01:00
Helen Liddell's attempt to win the unions over to Higher Still, will backfire unless she listens to the teachers whose goodwill she needs, argues her namesake David Liddell

Helen Liddell's letter to secondary heads is a classic example of how to hit all the wrong notes simultaneously.

Scarcely a reference is made to what was happening before her appointment as Scottish Education Minister, but it must have been regarded as a bit of a shambles, given the kick-start she has had to give the reform in monetary terms, to try to achieve a last-minute reprieve from the teachers' unions.

Whoever had the bright idea of setting up a telephone helpline for staff obviously had no idea of the atmosphere in the average secondary staffroom. Hoots of derision have been the universal response, and if anyone at the Scottish Office had half a clue, this might have been anticipated.

But the part of her grand rescue package which sticks most in the craw is when she writes that "this funding will assist classroom teachers by providing class cover to allow additional preparation time." This phrase demonstrates just how out of touch the minister and her advisers are from the reality of life in the supply lane.

Her main reason for not countenancing any further delays on Higher Still is that the educational prospects of pupils starting the courses in August 1998 would be adversely affected. These are presumably the same pupils whose teachers she is preparing to provide cover for. Might not the Standard grade results of these pupils be affected if their teachers are absent from their classrooms for significant periods?

Teachers on permanent contracts will be released from their teaching duties to undertake Higher Still training while teachers on temporary contracts will be bought in to cover their classes. How will this address the Higher Still training needs of the newly-qualified staff expected to provide this cover?

Teachers straight from college have little chance of being offered a full-time permanent post and very few complete their probation in what used to be the normal two-year period. Five years is not uncommon and time spent in as many as 15 schools not unheard of. A huge ghostly army of supply staff has sprung up over recent years, which flits in and out of schools scarcely noticed, doing days here and there. Their more fortunate colleagues on permanent contracts seem unwilling to do much to better their lot. In fact, schools are increasingly buying in supply to release permanent staff to go on in-service courses or to produce curricular materials.

Given the margin of the Educational Institute of Scotland's vote last month to ballot the membership on a boycott of Higher Still and its reputation for delivering whatever result is required, Mrs Liddell's best option would be to accept the inevitable - that Higher Still will not be introduced in 1998. Rather than trying to take on the unions at a time when their co-operation with the reform is essential, she should look at other ways she might make an impact.

If Mrs Liddell wants the successful delivery of Higher Still by an enthusiastic teaching force ready to face the challenges of the next millennium, she should introduce a "new deal" for newly qualified teachers, to allow them to complete their probation in one school. Specific grants to local authorities to achieve this would be welcomed with open arms and a foundation for the future would be laid.

A similar underwriting for younger fully qualified teachers stuck on the supply treadmill and desperate for a real job would improve the opinion graduates have of teaching - ie, it's what you do if there's nothing better. She should also ask her officials to find out from local authorities the cost of providing cover after three days - this would include the large numbers of administrative staff needed to maintain a register, and the amount siphoned off by agencies. She should then investigate a possible "third way" of providing cover, which lies somewhere between the old system of schools "burying their own dead" and the ridiculous current system which places huge obstacles in front of new teachers trying to find a real job.

She should think long and hard about current staffing levels in Scottish schools. Would it not be better appreciated if the introduction of a major reform such as Higher Still led to an influx of new permanent staff rather than temporary cover?

If Mrs Liddell seeks to take on Scottish teachers on the issue of Higher Still, she will find that chutzpah is not enough. Teachers' good will is essential if any educational reform is to get off the ground. There was a considerable amount of good will from teachers to ensure the successful introduction of Standard grade (there were many more young idealists then).

The 5-14 reforms have never been wholeheartedly embraced in the same way, especially since national testing became an issue and tainted the whole concept.

Any attempt to railroad teachers through the Higher Still reforms will result in a wave of resentment which will carry far beyond Helen Liddell's tenure of office and well into the next century.

The choice is hers - to go for a short-term gain for personal political purposes or to take a longer term and more rational view which would ensure that everything was properly in place and everyone on board before the reform was implemented.

David Liddell is a teacher in South Lanarkshire and secretary of the local EIS association

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