Terms of endearment

2nd January 2004 at 00:00
An awful lot seems extremely familiar to Peter Peacock, as he reports to Jack McConnell on the problems facing him since his return to the education beat

Dear Jack

With Cathy moving off to pastures new after the election, it falls to me to write this year's report on education in 2003. I've specified the year to avoid any confusion because, as my department is fond of telling me, it's been something of a groundhog year - and it's not just that I've come back.

While I've put the best spin on what progress there's been since I was Sam's depute, the truth is that an awful lot seems depressingly familiar - pay and conditions, problems with discipline and the whole PPP thing. For goodness sake, there's even yet another chief executive at the Scottish Qualifications Authority. They're getting to be replaced as frequently as ministers.


You must promise me never again to strike a three-year deal with teachers.

It just gives them the perfect excuse to spend the entire time inspecting their navels. Last year they focused on the problems of the probationer scheme. Remember how they claimed that putting new teachers in schools for a training-probationer year would be an organisational disaster?

Well, research shows it worked rather well.

Unfortunately it's now the post probationer year that's the disaster as new teachers find themselves doing what they've always done at the start of their careers, going on the supply list.

However, last year's stushie was as nothing compared to this year's on job-sizing. It's been incredible listening to teachers moan, not that they've lost actual pay but that their job is no longer so highly valued because it attracts a lower salary. Apparently it's affected their self-esteem and made schools unmanageable - secondary schools, that is.

Primary teachers have remained remarkably quiet about it all. But I seem to remember that job-sizing was part of the agreement and that the teachers'

unions were the ones to propose that promoted posts should be paid according to the actual level of work and responsibility, not just according to school size. When we do just that, there's all hell to pay.

As for headteachers, Cathy noted last year that they were moaning because they were not on the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers. Well, give them the opportunity to participate and they flounce off. In the circumstances, I thought it was rather a clever spin for me to claim recently that the McCrone settlement had lifted the morale of the teaching force.

Oh my goodness - I've just realised that they'll be back asking for more pay this year. It's just as well that Gordon Brown has changed the way of calculating inflation so that it's now only 1.4 per cent. I wonder if I'll be able to sell that?


Discipline is another groundhog issue and I've come up with a groundhog solution - I've set up not one but two expert groups to advise me. And you have to admit that my "masterclasses" idea for headteachers is a bit of a winner. It doesn't really solve the problem but it does place responsibility in the school. For the same reason I've decided to trust headteachers' decisions on pupil exclusions. Moreover, there's nothing to make parents support the school's effort so much as having their miscreant son or daughter home for a spell!

Otherwise, I'm trying to work out whether we can use the tagging suggestions from the anti-social behaviour proposals. Youngsters who misbehave out of school are doubtless the ones causing problems in school.

Perhaps we could set up those alarm systems that stores have to prevent shoplifting. Every time a tagged child goes past a tag reader, an alarm would sound. It would make it appear that we were doing something.


When I saw the huge file labelled "PPP", I thought it referred to "Peter Peacock's Problems". Well, it does in a way although I understand it really contains all the details on the public private partnership deals for new schools. It is one of those "you win some, you lose some" issues.

It was going so well. Glasgow schools are all up and running, pupils are enjoying the new environment and the stream of complaints about PPP schools would have come to an end if we hadn't had such a hot summer and everyone realised that the ventilation systems left a little to be desired. You could smell Glasgow from the Newhouse junction on the M8. Then, after the elections a Labour win in West Dunbartonshire brought them back into the PPP fold while a Lib Dem victory in Inverclyde saw them reject a previously agreed PPP scheme.

So much for "coalition partner"! What kind of party does Jim Wallace run?

However, all that is as nothing to the troubles in East Lothian where the builders, Ballast, went bankrupt, leaving schools looking like building sites and half the books locked away. I'm copying the good example of the council, keeping my head down and leaving it to the consortium to sort out.

There are times when it is sensible not to claim responsibility.


The coalition agreement to cut assessment caused me a few problems. You may remember that you set up a review of 5-14 testing when you were Education Minister and it's been chuntering away ever since - quite a little industry in pilot projects. Anyway it had come up with this snappy title of "assessment is for learning" when suddenly we promise, as part of the coalition agreement, to reduce the amount of assessment.

That didn't go down too well with some in my department and it took some nifty footwork to keep them happy and honour all our promises, but we've come up with a solution. We're going to carry on with all the 5-14 assessment as before, but not collect it centrally so we can pretend that there's less.

Meanwhile, we're going to use the Assessment of Achievement Programme to collect information on standards across all schools, but we'll rename it the Scottish Survey of Achievement to make it sound more friendly.

However, the SSA will actually sample more schools in order to give information on authorities. So again there will be more - but we'll pretend it's less! I always say that if you generate enough confusion you can claim anything.


Talking of smoke and mirrors stuff, I got into a bit of a problem over league tables. I think we agreed that, if Wales and Northern Ireland could abolish them, we should as well. After all, it just provides newspapers with loads of free copy and an excuse to get at us.

Look what happened with the 5-14 results. Did anyone notice there'd actually been an improvement? No, it was just taken as another chance to criticise English standards. We should go over to universal Gaelic medium education. That'll solve the problem.

But I digress. My best efforts on the league tables have run up against the Freedom of Information Act, which says that, if we collect information, the public - and for "public" read newspaper editors - has a right to see it.

Doubtless this is another consequence of us being in coalition with the Liberals.

In the circumstances I think giving the information on school-by-school websites is the best we can come up with. At least if the press want to turn the results into league tables, they'll have to do some work for a change.


The curriculum is all over the place. On the one hand, we've got teachers, pupils and parents saying it's so overcrowded that there is no time to do more than cover everything superficially. Indeed, that was one of the findings of the national debate, so we have to take it seriously. On the other hand the massed ranks are lining up to ask for more skills: apparently we have to add "soft" skills to the famous "core" skills - it's all beginning to sound dangerously like pornography.

Then there are the calls for a range of new "educations" - citizenship, enterprise, financial, not to mention sex and health, and that's before we even reach the right-side-left-side of the brain debate. However, not to worry, I've got the perfect answer. I've set up the usual working group comprising the usual suspects. They'll buy us time and hopefully produce something that is so impenetrable no one will understand it - a kind of Learning and Teaching Scotland "special".

We can respond by agreeing to do away with subjects and replacing them with Personal Information and Study Skills, or PISS for short. That way, no one will be quite sure what we are teaching and we can claim to be teaching anything that anyone asks for. It also fully accords with our new principle of flexibility.


Still on the subject of the curriculum, it was good of you to make it clear that modern languages are now just optional and pretty amazing that Douglas Osler had the cheek to agree with that in a piece he wrote for The TES Scotland. Is this the same Douglas "let them speak French" Osler who used to be chief HMI?

Mark you, given the low pass rate in Higher English this summer, it's probably wise to ensure that they can master their own language - and I don't mean text messaging - before we let them loose on other peoples'!


I have to say I was extremely disappointed to pick up the special educational needs baton more or less where I'd left it. I mean we had inclusion and mainstreaming in the 2000 Education Act. I know we didn't cost it properly but, if we had, the measure would never have got through.

Anyway, I digress again. At that time I chaired a group looking at the record of needs and how it could be improved, so to come back and find that the measure is just about ready for lift off in the form of the Additional Support for Learning Bill was both a pleasure and a disappointment.

It's good to be able to see something through to the end but it was disappointing that so little progress had been made.

I think my efforts to consult over the summer certainly improved the proposals, but they're being given a really hard time in the education committee. Everyone who's given evidence has started by saying how much they support the principle and then set about tearing into the details. To listen to many of them talk, you'd think the record of needs is the perfect solution.


I seem to remember we fought the first election on cutting class size. Then the target was a maximum of 30 pupils in P1-P3. Now, we seem to have promised further cuts in primary as well as for maths and English at the start of secondary school. If we carry on at this rate, we might as well advocate that everyone's educated at home!

Where are we going to get the extra classrooms from, not to mention the teachers? It's fine to promise but hard to deliver, as we're discovering with our pledge that every primary child will have the experience of learning a musical instrument - there aren't enough teachers - or our pledge to expand Gaelic-medium education, which is running into the same problem.


Hey, I like the idea of changing the New Community Schools into Integrated Community Schools. Name changes always make it sound like you're doing something new and confuse the public. As it is, NC Schools had a mixed review. They've been good at improving the links with parents but rather less good at raising attainment and closing the gap between those in deprived areas and those in prosperous areas. Also, getting teachers and social workers together is proving a bit like herding cats.


You know when I see all these depressing health reports about how unfit schoolchildren are - I see Scotland falls somewhere between Cuba and Costa Rica on the world health register - I begin to feel like a Minister of Health, not Education. A survey of S1 and S2 pupils at the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway presented the ultimate dilemma. The youngsters are too busy studying to take part in physical activities so the fitness levels of all pupils are low.

What am I here for - raising attainment or getting kids fit? Forget literacy and numeracy, I spend almost as much time suggesting that youngsters shouldn't eat chips, should drink water and should take more exercise. They should be here in the department. Half the staff are taking part in triathlons. It's enough to make anyone reach for a deep-fried Mars bar.


I'm glad the new inspection regime is working so well. I like the way the authorities are being put through the hoop as well as schools, although it was a wee bit of a surprise to see Clackmannanshire come out so badly.

That's where Keir Bloomer's in charge, isn't it?

Which brings me to another rather tricky election pledge - this idea that we will send in "hit squads" to "failing schools and authorities" as some newspapers are so pleased to put it. How can I do that when authorities already jump when Graham Donaldson and his crew criticise? Where would I get the hit squads from, anyway?

Meeting this election promise required some clever wordsmithing by my department. They came up with "reserve powers" to be used "in extremis" but that didn't fool too many folk. The general verdict is still that the whole proposal is a no-brainer.


And last but not least there's the FE sector! All the extra money we've chucked at it seems to have paid off as most colleges are finally getting their books to balance, but we've not had much success on the merger front so far - apart, that is, from a couple of unions and two of the Glasgow colleges trying to get their act together again.

Also, FE staff have rumbled the reality of all those disaffected pupils going to colleges for more "meaningful courses" - they are not being funded for it and have to cope with the problems the schools are quite happy to pass on. I felt it was necessary to agree to a moratorium before all the lecturers walked out. As it is, there are enough disputes and tribunals in the sector to keep the lawyers happy for months.

So Jack, that's my warts and all report. It's been good to sit down and reflect on the past year for, as the Gaels say, "is ann an ceann bliadhna a dh'innseas iasgair a thuiteamus" - "It is at the year's end that the fisher can tell his luck."

Yours aye Peter

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