Rocky road

4th January 2013 at 00:00
A wry look back at a turbulent year in Scottish education

What with clandestine recordings, backlashes over an FE funding howler and even a primary-aged blogger putting the boot in over school meals - it's enough to make any education secretary want to hang up his shaving kit.

Dear Alex,

You won't take my phone calls, you ignore my emails and send back the singed remnants of my letters by return post.

Communication is the lifeblood of any relationship and I yearn to rekindle ours since the embarrassment of the college funding figures debacle. To be once again on the receiving end of your cheery grin is my heart's desire. My only option therefore is to deliver my annual report via TESS, a publication I know you hold in the highest esteem, especially now that it has gained the title of Scottish Magazine of the Year.

As you know, the year did not end well for me. First, I was the victim of a fiendish plot. Secretly recording a private conversation I was having with 80-odd people, using a "spy pen"? Surely I was right to hound - sorry, encourage - Kirk Ramsay out of his post as chair of Stow College. Besides, the only chairs I'm interested in preserving are the regional kind, appointed by me directly.

The plot thickens

An "unwarranted personal attack" - that's what Ramsay called my reaction. But I'm the victim here - now I see an innocent wristwatch and wonder if it doubles as a deadly laser or an implausibly powerful magnet. I've even had nightmares about my seat at cabinet meetings being electrified and my charred remains being tipped down a chute deep in the bowels of Bute House, like some infinitely dispensable Bond villain's henchman. Ridiculous, I know - you'd probably just demote me to culture minister.

And as for the FE funding mishap, neither of us will be forgetting in a hurry that funding in 2011-12 was pound;555.7 million, not pound;545 million, even if it does make us look worse. Instead of giving colleges pound;1 million more this year, it turns out they got pound;9.3 million less. Ouch.

Sorry state of affairs

You and I apologising is about as likely as the school's intranet, Glow, being fit for purpose - but apologise for misleading parliament we did. I have to say, once I started I got quite into it, which is probably just as well because you've certainly given me plenty of practice at grovelling since.

Still, let's look on the bright side, we've introduced regionalisation, turning Scotland's 41 colleges into bodies run by 12 regional boards and got them to use their own reserves to do it (our thanks go out to Telford College in particular for the pound;30 million it had squirreled away); we've slashed FE budgets; cut college staffing to the bone; and virtually eradicated courses for mature learners and kids with additional support needs, so there's a lot to be proud of.

On the back of the FE funding howler, a lesser man would find it tricky to continue to pass judgement on the literacy and numeracy skills of teachers. Not me.

If anything I'm going to redouble my efforts on this front in the new year. Maybe if student teachers are regularly assessed on literacy and numeracy - which of course we plan to do - and all educators concentrate their minds on sharpening these skills, we'll end up with civil servants who can count - which, let's face it, would make life a lot less embarrassing for us politicians.

Headteachers might also be capable of understanding some of our key policies, such as recognising the difference between 3+3 and 2+2+2, something which thus far has eluded those who insist on sticking with subject choice at the end of S2. How many times do I have to say it? Under Curriculum for Excellence, there is to be a broad general education in S1 to S3. Capisce?

Making it all add up

Then of course there's our goal for Scottish children to learn 1+2 languages - their mother tongue plus two others - another calculation that secondary heads appear to be failing to comprehend, with Scotland's national centre for languages, SCILT, reporting that while opportunities to learn a foreign language in primary are improving, in secondary they are diminishing.

Maybe they'll start to get the hang of it when the inspectors come calling and support them out of their positions?

At the end of the day, if teachers want to be classed as professionals, then they have to start acting like them. (Let's just hope they don't expect to be paid like them - or have their pensions.)

Improving their literacy and numeracy skills is just the start. Continuous improvement for no extra reward - that's what it's all about, and the National Partnership Group (NPG) report on the Donaldson review is going to make it happen, delivering a master's-level profession at no extra cost. Basically, it's chartered teacher, but everybody's going to be encouraged to do it and no one will get any additional pay when they do. Clever, non?

We might not be able to get away with continuing to pay supply teachers a pittance, though. The changes to their terms and conditions introduced in August 2011 might have been popular with Cosla's holders of the purse- strings, but supply teachers have been voting with their feet ever since. Even the General Teaching Council for Scotland's latest teacher employment survey, which generally proved a less harrowing read for me this year than in the past, showed that the proportion of new teachers securing supply work fell from 24.6 per cent last year to 15.2 per cent this year.

Still, overall, more new teachers are finding work which, thank goodness, finally gives us something to boast about.

Bad taste in the mouth

As if the teachers weren't enough for me to be getting on with, this year the pupils started getting proactive, in the form of schoolgirl blogger Martha Pain - sorry, Payne.

Thanks to that nine-year-old and her online rating of Scottish school meals, we're now on do-gooder celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's radar. Next thing we know, he'll be descending on one of our less salubrious schools and beaming images around the world of Scottish mothers ramming deep-fried Mars Bars and pies through the school fence while he tries to force-feed their offspring salad. They'll never let us join the EU after that.

If young Miss Payne is the kind of independent-thinking self-starter the new curriculum is going to create, maybe we should have a rethink? Could East Renfrewshire have had a point when it decided to delay introducing the new Nationals, resisting my gentle cajoling, threats, intimidation and (I have to admit some admiration for their endurance under fire) thumbscrews?

But no, as Scotland's directors of education were told in Education Scotland chief Bill Maxwell's hastily penned missive after the East Renfrewshire debacle, we will press on with Curriculum for Excellence and the introduction of the new exams or they will "DIE, DIE, DIE" - or words to that effect.

That sinking feeling

Besides, Education Scotland's deep audit showed not a single authority, school or department - with the exception of East Renfrewshire, of course - required a delay in the introduction of the new Nationals 4 and 5. Dr Maxwell may have let East Ren slip through the net, but at least he kept the deep audit shallow enough to stop us all drowning.

The new money I introduced in March ought to help, a total of pound;3.5 million worth of training and support materials for the new National 4 and 5 courses. The Educational Institute of Scotland drove a hard bargain, but they'll never be able to work out the true value of what we provide and at least we avoided the one-year delay they were gunning for (not to mention Labour's Hugh Henry turning me into his whipping boy).

The new EIS general secretary, Larry Flanagan, may look like the kind of chap you'd find guarding the door of a Glasgow nightclub, but he's actually quite civilised. Less constructive, though, has been my relationship with the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association. Although even I have to admit they add some colour to the Scottish education scene - who could forget incoming president James Forbes turning up to a GTCS disciplinary hearing wearing a pointed hat and carrying a broomstick in protest at "witch hunt" proceedings?

I never thought I'd say this, but I'm going to miss former SSTA general secretary Ann Ballinger.

All covered with muscle

Still, in spite of fairly positive dealings with Mr Flanagan to date, I'll be taking some muscle with me when we next meet - just to be on the safe side. Our pensions consultation on a proposed increase to teacher contributions, conveniently announced to coincide with the Christmas break, has clearly rattled his cage. He genuinely believed that we were going to find a Scottish solution, but from where?

We've strip-searched John Swinney, checked under the mattress and down the back of the sofa; there's no more cash to be had. If Scottish teachers don't want to be turning up for school with a Zimmer frame and an ear trumpet, I suggest they vote for Scottish independence and give us more control over the purse-strings. In the meantime, our policy will be to blame Westminster (something we enjoy, even more than blaming the local authorities).

Mr Flanagan's also been a thorn in my side over the introduction of a mandatory question on Scottish literature in the Higher English and National 5 exams, arguing that teachers should be allowed to use their professional judgement and take responsibility for the content of courses.

What kind of fool does he take me for? Who in their right mind would embark on a crazy scheme like that?

On a hairy way ahead

So what does the coming year hold? We'll be pushing on with Curriculum for Excellence, of course, and the introduction of the new exams; there's the prospect of a teachers' strike over pensions; the teachers' pay and conditions negotiations to look forward to; and provided no more councils decide to take us to court, the Commission on the Delivery of Rural Education will deliver its verdict. The National Implementation Board, established to turn the NPG report into a reality, will also be embarking on its mission to drive up teacher quality.

All of which has prompted me to put my thinking cap on and come up with a suggestion. Edinburgh is contemplating moving heads and deputes to a new school every few years - maybe we could think about rotating ministers? I'm beginning to wonder if the environment portfolio really was such a bad gig .

Finally, we turn to my beard which is coming along nicely - as is the paunch I have been carefully cultivating. (I've no complaints about the size of the helpings when I visit schools in Argyll and Bute!) I'm going for the "learned gent" look; this year I'm thinking of adding a pocket watch.

If all else fails, at least I'll look the part.

Yours, Michael.

Illustration by Paul Bateman

Original headline: Plots, personal attacks and a taste of paranoia

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