As the Holyrood campaign hots up, Raymond Ross takes the staffroom temperature in a large comprehensive
EDUCATIONAL ISSUES are not the deciding factor for Scottish teachers as they consider how to cast their vote on May 6 - if attitudes expressed by the majority of teachers at Falkirk High last week are a representative sample.
Most rated education as "not really" or "not very" important, a few admitted to outright cynicism about political promises and few were impressed by the Labour administration's track-record.
"Brian Wilson and Helen Liddell have riled people with their pontificating and teacher bashing," one modern languages teacher with 30 years' experience declared. "That isn't going to get us on their side. They talk in figures that are meaningless and just blame previous administrations."
Although a traditional Tory voter, she claimed to be equally cynical about the other parties' attempts to "appease teachers", saw little difference between them, an opinion echoed by the staff as a whole, and called for "better people in charge of education".
A member of the senior management team was "less than impressed with Helen Liddell", saying that Brian Wilson had "a better feel" for negotiating with teachers. "Liddell wants to measure everything and to nail teachers to the wall," he said. "I think she will definitely have put a lot of teachers off voting Labour. She's too confrontational."
He added: "Most teachers accept the need for a degree of rigour to work to, but this has to be done professionally and not crudely as it is at the moment."
These sentiments were echoed by another senior staff member, a traditional Labour voter whose first vote is going tactically to the SNP precisely to offset what he calls "the triumphalism of a new Labour majority". "I'm against the name and shame culture which is coming in from England. I'd like to see the current approach to target-setting strangled."
His reply to Tony Blair's call for "education, education, education" is "resources, resources, resources" and he calls for a radical review of staffing, with more ancillary staff to free teachers to teach and management to manage.
When The TES Scotland asked staff what they would vote for, most opted for smaller class sizes (20 for non-practical subjects), consistency in educational policy and delivery, and more attention given to discipline.
Pay and conditions were mentioned, but were not a priority for the majority.
One principal teacher said: "I'd like to see the parliament work on a structured discipline policy and a structured behavioural support system for all Scottish schools, something that can be delivered on campus. At the moment we don't teach, we contain."
"A coherent and progressive educational programme from S1 to S6 is what teachers most want and what politicians typically fail to realise," another principal teacher said. "Everything is done piecemeal. First you get Standard grades and then Higher Still, putting the cart before the horse. We are still waiting on S1 and S2. The 5-14 course lacks coherence."
The "chopping and changing" of courses was a source of much frustration.
"I'd vote for any party that would deliver a coherent structure with time to consolidate the proper changes," another principal teacher declared.
But it took one of the school's technicians to declare that the ideal for which he would vote would be "teachers more involved in decision-making".
He said: "A lot of things are foisted on teachers without them having a say. That's the single biggest problem in education."
An active member of the Labour Party, he called for a wider discussion of the use of private funds to build schools (the private finance initiative), under which five Falkirk schools are likely to be modernised. "Resourcing is important to me as I am a resource," he said.
Worries over PFI, under which non-teaching jobs are taken over by the private sector, also exercised the minds of office staff. They saw education as important in deciding how they voted and one secretary said equipment and books should be a priority.
A probationer on her second year of supply work saw education as her number one priority in voting and was attracted by the Liberal Democrat proposal of a penny on tax for education. She was not convinced by the Government's preoccupation with putting new computers in schools, but wanted more books and smaller class sizes on the principle that "the best resource is the teacher".
Falkirk High lies in Dennis Canavan's Falkirk West constituency, so there is a pronounced "Canavan factor", following his decision to stand against the official Labour candidate. Most traditional Labour members of the staff said they would declare for Canavan on an Independent ticket on their first vote, giving only their second vote to Labour.
"Many of the teachers will vote for him," one said, "because he has supported the school very well over the years. He visits, often writes to pupils individually in response to modern studies projects, holds pupil surgeries and takes time to help the school. That's real not rhetoric."
So some politicians appeal to teachers after all.