Staff warn that 'it's a shambles in schools'

10th March 2006 at 00:00
Disgruntled secondary teachers from 20 schools have published their own scathing analysis of a curriculum and assessment system they say is short-changing pupils and stressing staff.

Led by Bill Smith, principal teacher of art and design at Ellon Academy, Aberdeenshire, the group complains that front-line concerns are being ignored. "Staff in schools are saying that Scottish education is a shambles," Mr Smith says.

He identifies the Scottish Qualifications Authority as the root cause of teachers' difficulties in his introduction to a booklet called Listen to the teachers, which has been sent to key figures in Scottish education. The SQA is said to be stifling flexibility and creativity and damaging pupils'

long-term interests.

Mr Smith says: "Years of tinkering and political interference with education have resulted in a grossly overloaded, over-assessed curriculum, which is geared to training pupils to pass SQA exams but failing to prepare them adequately for life."

Major problems identified by staff include:

* The SQA dictating the national curriculum - it sets the exams, so it dominates what is taught.

* The imposition of faculty systems is drastically reducing the quality of education and morale of staff.

* An overloaded curriculum is creating major stress for pupils and staff.

* Education has become a system-oriented culture rather than one which responds to the client group.

* Staff are overwhelmed by paperwork and new initiatives.

* Serious staffing shortages in some areas.

* Continued failure to listen to teachers.

Leader 22


Modern studies. One teacher complains that national test improvements are probably due to better test technique than any rise in standards. At more senior levels, pupils are said to spend much of their year preparing for and completing internal assessments instead of learning to work independently or creatively.

"What may be seen as passive drilling is the most tremendous waste of talent, time and money. It may be argued that it is the reason for so much failure, bad behaviour and boredom," the teacher says.

Schools are afraid to teach major subjects differently "while the threat of poor SQA results or falling down league tables looms".

English. An Aberdeenshire teacher notes that the Higher Still course is "still a dog's breakfast" despite complaints and revisions. There is said to be no status given to the teaching of writing or attainment in writing and too many separate assessment targets to meet.

"Most PTs in the 'Shire openly admit to teaching a selection of short stories and poems in their Higher courses - no full-length texts - because of the time demands placed by the need to pass NABs. This is morally and culturally indefensible."

The PT highlights the poor articulation between Standard grade and Higher Still courses and the "narrowness of the final exam".

"Members of my department regularly work over 50 hours per week, and those with young families offer unprompted comment on how their children complain about how their parent spends little time with them because of the demands of the job, with large marking loads at weekends, evenings, etc."

Another English PT observes that the five National Qualification levels all come with different, and separate, demands on course and unit completion.

For example, all Higher and Intermediate courses come with three separate NABs for each course with possible reassessments. Teachers have to record each pass or fail and each pupil will have a possible maximum of six.

History. One teacher argues that the league table agenda has forced teachers to teach to the exam. "In Higher history (British topic), for example, whereas 10 years ago, most teachers would have taught 'the whole course' (10 topics), now most only teach four - and these are gone over and over giving pupils practice in every combination of essay that might come up in the exam.

"The result is that the experience of history is arid and technocratic."

A further concern is that teachers have abandoned the Scottish history element because it is time-consuming and unnecessary from an exam point of view. Only 4 per cent of pupils do it in the exam.

Biology. "I do not have time to teach pupils to be successful and confident because I am too busy running backwards and forwards teaching two classes at the same time because of a lack of specialist supply teachers.

"Our subject is knowledge-based and time and time again I find myself giving pupils short cuts to learning facts, like rhymes and chants etc, instead of teaching them the concepts or the skills," one teacher says.

Art and design. One teacher says little formal teaching of art and design goes on in primary, leaving pupils "expressively inarticulate and visually illiterate"

when they reach S1.

Another remarks: "Flexibility in the curriculum is being eroded by the need to 'train' and prepare pupils for S grade and NQ courses. S grade courses are being devalued by the pressure to start NQ courses in S3 when pupils are not emotionally or intellectually mature enough."

ComputingICT. "In the five years I have been in post, I have introduced a new course or had to revise existing courses to new arrangements, five times," one teacher says.

Religious, moral and philosophical studies. In the Higher, one teacher argues that content has been made more specific and the assessments easier "for pupils to gain better marks and grades".

"Many of the skills and abilities which pupils were formerly being asked to developachieve have been 'watered down' as the curriculum content has been streamlined to produce better results."

Departments are loaded down with assessment and reassessment, as are pupils from S3-S6. "The reality of quantity and accountability and public and political scrutiny, and the constant changes which have accompanied these, have given us an inferior quality of education for our young people," the teacher says.

Physical education. As one teacher puts it: "Jumping through SQA hoops is not a substitute for meaningful physical education."

The teacher goes on to lament that the Higher course is more about knowing the theory of fitness than actually engaging in activity. "Physical education teachers find it extraordinarily frustrating and incredibly depressing to work in an assessment orientated, exam led, statistically obsessed system, which gives greater importance to percentage passes than the health of individuals."

Geography. "Intermediate 1 and 2 are courses which neither integrate properly with Higher to teach in the same classroom, nor are sufficiently different to be taught completely separately. Any such class presents difficulty, due to the huge range and motivation of pupils within it. Our school has actually done very well in achieving good results from such a medley."

Music. "Are we really teaching our youngsters the skills, knowledge or to the level that we formerly did? I think not," one teacher concludes. The teacher adds: "Standards are falling; the requirements in real terms are a joke." Higher students are unable to give correct descriptions of musical concepts and unable to accompany a class performance.

Technical education. "S1-S2 is the only time where teachers have any sense of autonomy . . . The use of the minimum C pass in the unit assessments has resulted in a minimalistic approach by pupils. Why bother?"

Do you have any comments? Send them to

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today