Staff are a vital resource;Opinion

17th December 1999 at 00:00
Scott Stirling has never seen staff under such pressure, literacy such a worry or the system so inflexible.

I HAVE been involved in secondary education for almost 25 years. I have experienced life as a teacher, assistant principal teacher, principal teacher, assistant headteacher and now depute headteacher. I have worked in a number of small and large secondary schools, albeit within one education authority.

I have always endeavoured to do the best possible for the pupils in my schools, generally had a positive outlook and certainly felt that this was shared by the vast majority of the many, many staff I have had the pleasure of working with.

Unlike many younger staff, I have also experienced such aspects of the "good old days" as corporal punishment, non-certificate classes and remedial classes. Let me highlight two of the issues which are of increasing concern to me. (Am I alone?) First, literacy levels of pupils arriving in S1. My own school can never claim to be of mixed academic ability, but the increasing concerns over literacy levels continue. Five-14 testing provides an accurate "benchmark" of attainment levels; we must accept this despite disquiet, as in the new HMI review, about their validity on further testing in S1.

The profile of our present S1 based on primary testing is as follows: Level A - 7 per cent, B - 32 per cent, C - 42 per cent, D - 17 per cent, E - 2 per cent. By the time pupils reach secondary school over 60 per cent of their compulsory school education has taken place. There is also an expanding nursery provision to be taken into account.

This is stated within the context of a dedicated and hard working primary school workforce. I am also convinced that the increasing sophistication of the secondary curriculum is also further highlighting this problem.

Why do we still have seven years spent in primary? (Do we dare ask this question?) If the answer is "because we always have" then perhaps some dialogue needs to take place. Some primary colleagues have expressed a view that the primary curriculum is too wide and certainly not deep enough.

The smooth transition from primary to secondary is vital. But for many the exposure to 16 possible subjects and at least as many staff is often a step too far. Even the imaginative use of rotations only slightly reduces this number.

The ability to read is vital if pupils are to progress in education. Many of the behavioural problems being experienced in S1 and S2 are inextricably linked to the frustration being caused by this inability. There are certainly also a number of pupils who "cope" by attempting to "hide" in the classroom.

Addressing these concerns highlights the lack of flexibility available to secondary schools. This rigidity is primarily caused by a lack of resources, chiefly in staffing levels.

In my own school the timetabler has flexibility of 1.2 full-time equivalents out of a full-time equivalent complement of 32, excluding learning support staff.

The "in-house" alternatives to a full curricular provision are extremely limited. The "alternative" provision to mainstream education seems equally limited.

The subject of resources leads me to the second issue: the level and skills of non-teaching staff do not support a school approaching the millennium.

Some tasks carried out by staff at both senior management and department level certainly do not provide value for money. Senior management have responsibility for tasks such as financial management, site management, health and safety, dealing with paper work for the Scottish Qualification Authority, providing first-aid, playground supervision and lunchtime duties, to name but a few.

The modern secondary school needs a school administrator, part of the management team, to manage all non-teaching staff and deal with non-educational matters.

This must include the services of a school nurse. I am sure that beleaguered guidance and senior management staff would welcome this.

This enhanced support service would allow this school to become further involved in a devolved budget. Presently my school costs pound;1.5 million to run and our devolved budget is pound;50,000. If the staffing costs in spending this pound;50,000 were taken into account, "efficient" would not be a word that came to mind.

Staffing is the vital resource. Our own education department has had a 4 per cent staffing and financial cut imposed now for four years.

If we are to begin to address the issue of teacher workload, we must look at the content of a teacher's working week. The present "treadmill" of classes must be avoided. A teacher's working week must be a mixture of class contact, professional development and curricular development. Increasing staffing levels would also increase flexibility.

Having been involved in teaching for 25 years, I have never seen a time when everyone was working as hard under increasing pressure from a variety of sources. Apart from being detrimental to the wellbeing of an ageing workforce, it cannot be providing our pupils with the provision they deserve and are entitled to.

Scott Stirling is depute headteacher, Maxwelltown High School, Dumfries.

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