Who wants our vote?
Drafting a response to Labour's original consultation document on Scottish education was one of the more unusual tasks I undertook last year. Unusual in the sense that seeking the views of teacher trade unions, inter alia, has not always been the first thought of any ambitious political party. So what, then, of last month's response to the consultation process - have all the wise words been heeded, has the view of the proletariat prevailed at Keir Hardie House? Regrettably, it seems not. The current report on Labour has to read "Could do better".
The pledge to put the child as the focus of Scottish education is one few teachers would challenge. The key question is: does this policy focus on the child in a way which will generate real improvement, or are these changes simply cosmetic and designed to appeal to the electorate? I fear that the latter is very much the case. Too many of the strands of the policy seem to emanate from perceptions of education derived from experiences in England which have then been grafted on to the Scottish situation. This is particularly regrettable at a time when the distinct identity of Scottish education is under increasing threat.
Labour fails to grasp the central issues which are in evidence at this time. Of what value will be "Labour's Compact with every student" when the building in which that student works is more suggestive of slum clearance than state of the art? How can the student aspire to greater heights of achievement when many of the course options which used to exist have been scrapped due to cutbacks in staffing?
For a party that dominates local government in Scotland to make so little reference to the deepening financial crisis which has dominated the agenda at meetings all over the country for many years is deeply worrying. Do Labour leaders really imagine that scrapping nursery vouchers and assisted places will generate more than a tiny fraction of the funding desperately needed to restore some of the status of Scottish education? While it would be naive to expect Labour to offer an open cheque-book, the refusal to acknowledge the underpinning nature of the funding issue must send alarm signals to the whole of the education community. If Labour does have the opportunity to implement its policy, how will all the proposals be funded? Will everything have to await the projected savings in welfare benefits, or will there be real money available?
There are inconsistencies, too. While the policy condemns the "constant stream of ill thought out 'reforms' of the Conservative government", it also goes on to catalogue a series of changes, almost all of which will add to the burden imposed on schools without removing any other obligations. The television vision of Eamonn Andrews on Crackerjack loading cabbages on to innocent children of a Friday evening comes vividly to mind. The teaching profession is already suffering from innovation fatigue - any change can only be implemented at the expense of some existing work. There is little sign of prioritisation in the policy.
Inevitably, the issue of the contribution of teachers and their motivation has brought much comment from and little relief for an embattled profession. Cheers for the statement that "Scottish Labour wishes to enhance the role of teachers", boos when this will be achieved by using the "University of Industry" and the Internet. Anticipation when they read, "Teachers will need help and encouragement to offset the effect of Conservative policies on their morale", desperation when they realise that this will be accomplished by "professional pace-setters" who may become "associate fellows of local higher education establishments".
By what criteria are you a "super-teacher?" - assessment by super-inspectors, super-headteachers? Has there ever been a proposal which so obviously would create divisions within schools (or maybe that's the whole idea)?
There are positive aspects for teachers. Reinforcing the work of the General Teaching Council and expanding its role will develop an institution that operates with widespread respect and consent; introducing sabbaticals and study visits would permit much needed invigoration of the profession; reducing administrative burdens by the use of classroom assistants could, if properly used, free valuable teaching time. Since the original document there has been some alteration to the wording of the section on the removal of "demotivated" teachers. No longer are they to be removed "rapidly and with a minimum of fuss". Now they simply "can no longer be allowed to stay in the profession". Their exit should be achieved "rapidly and sensitively". So, no real change there then.
There is clearly still a danger that this is the single issue on which most attention will be focused. No one should doubt that it is a critical issue, nor that it is one from which the profession has for too long shied away. The real danger here, however, is that it will provoke a latter-day witch hunt. The incidence of false accusations against teachers seems to be increasing year by year. Giving such prominence to this aspect of education may only serve to exacerbate the problem.
The theme of partnership running throughout the document is a welcome one, although it has to be emphasised that any partnership, whether between parents and school or industry and schools, has to be two-way and interactive. This is a view likely to be shared by both parents and industrialists, and is crucial to success in any such partnership. Meanwhile, back at Dover House Michael Forsyth has been reading Labour's document with just as much interest as I have. Clearly so, for he headed immediately to brief Lobby correspondents on his latest big idea. Now that Labour had so clearly nailed its colours to the mast with its statement in favour of appraisal of teachers, it was clear that there was a consensus on this issue at least, and so this was a good time to bring in regulations to make appraisal compulsory, and so he was jolly well going to do so.
If Labour was missing the point in its policy, Mr Forsyth was even wider off the mark. Just at the very time when many councils have almost totally eliminated funding for staff development and appraisal, he calls for it to be made compulsory. Did someone mention bricks without straw? At a time of crisis, he has seized on just the wrong issue again, as he did with the plans for a pay review body some weeks ago. So some advice for Mr Forsyth. If you want to address the real issue, turn instead to page 17 of the Labour policy and read the party's line on delay of implementation of the Higher Still reforms. If there is consensus on any issue in Scottish education at this time, it is that Higher Still will not be ready on time, and if it is to be implemented for the benefit of young people it has to be delayed until it can be delivered properly.
As the election looms, gimmicky appeals to various groups of the electorate become the norm. One side accuses the other of tactics it itself used the previous day. One point can be clearly made in favour of Labour's proposals and the minister's reaction: neither is a pitch for the "teachers' vote".
David Eaglesham is general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association.