the past year has been a turbulent one for Scottish education and there’s little to suggest that it will be plain sailing in 2016 – but there are glimmers of light on the horizon. We look at the pressing issues for the next 12 months.
Curriculum for Excellence
The new qualifications will have bedded in for at least a year by this summer, and the long-awaited report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) was published last month. It included plenty of action points, but also a strong sense that the Scottish education sector has the right ambitions. The question now is whether 2016 will be the year that CfE finally drives up standards and creates a school experience that’s truly for everyone? Or will it instead tumble towards that well-stocked graveyard of curricular reform? The answer is in the balance.
The education secretary made a refreshing change when she took the job in late 2014 as part of Nicola Sturgeon’s gender-balanced cabinet. A background in social work and having a young child of her own in school gave Ms Constance a perspective that other education ministers lacked. The job also changed in the Sturgeon era, as the first minister is hands-on with education. Much of Ms Constance’s time in 2015 was spent firefighting, from fallout over national testing to ructions in Glasgow’s further education sector. With a year’s experience under her belt, perhaps now she will leave a mark.
Members of the EIS teaching union voted for industrial action before Christmas, after talks about reducing workload stalled. There have been a variety of concerns about implementing CfE for a while, but now a work to rule is a real prospect. As general secretary Larry Flanagan put it, teachers “have had enough”. Assessments, along with the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s verification procedures are the biggest problems. The irony is that CfE is supposed to free teachers from paperwork and marking.
The relationship between the local authorities body and the Scottish government plumbed new depths in December, after 10 local councils failed to meet the minimum teacher numbers. Cosla declared itself “totally disinterested in these numbers”. Local authorities want to boost budgets by shortening school weeks and closing more rural schools – but such measures have been vetoed by the government. There will be more cuts, but where? Everything unprotected by legislation is fair game. The question is who gets blamed – with the SNP riding high in the polls for May’s Holyrood election, councils may face a bumpy ride.
The Scottish government has met with consternation over the prospect of standardised national assessment in P1, P4, P7 and S3 as part of the national improvement framework. It even earned a rebuke from the OECD for the proposal’s focus on literacy and numeracy, which could “sideline” subjects such as science, history, geography, PE, citizenship and the arts. There have, however, been attempts to mollify teachers by hinting that the framework’s final version will be less contentious. This government is nothing if not tactically astute; if criticism over national assessment continues to the point of being an electoral liability, it will surely revise its plans.
The idea of “state-funded autonomous schools” is so politically charged that even the appropriate terminology is disputed. Comprehensive education marked its half century last summer and Scotland is far closer to the original ideal than England. But the Hometown Foundation wants to help two schools run without the involvement of local authorities, while still receiving state funding, and claims that there is growing interest from parents, as well as headteachers, around Scotland. The Scottish government, meanwhile, is keeping a watching brief. This time next year, it is likely that we will know whether it was an interesting side issue or the start of something bigger.
Supply staff must have felt left out when a pay and conditions deal for Scotland’s teachers was agreed in October. They still won’t receive clarity on their situation until at least January, when a working group is due to publish recommendations on supply teachers’ pay. Supply staff still feel burned by the controversial 2011 deal that restricted them to a significantly lower daily rate unless they worked five consecutive days. Even though that was later reduced, many have melted away from the profession. In 2016, we’ll find out whether supply teaching has reached a turning point.
Education was for years in the margins of Scottish political debate, but it’s shaping up to be one of the main battlegrounds of May’s elections. Ms Sturgeon has been very involved with her party’s education work and she has upped the ante by declaring that her record should be judged on whether Scotland’s notorious attainment gap has been eliminated. New Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale has picked a few fights over the SNP’s education record, coming up with new policies such as tax hikes to help headteachers drive down the divide between rich and poor. Parliamentary stramashes over education often generate more heat than light – but, then again, at least they’re talking about it.
The Scottish college sector faces the threat of the first national strike action in decades. FE leaders insist that while finance secretary John Swinney has pledged to keep the college budget stable, difficult decisions must be made. The offer of a 1 per cent pay increase was rejected by unions and strike action seems inevitable. With vocational education routes for school-age students another likely focus, the sector will need to up its game on delivering courses for these younger learners while maintaining provision across all levels and providing routes into higher education for more students from poor backgrounds. The mantra of recent years, “doing more with less”, will continue to apply in 2016.
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