How a Canada-do attitude can revive teacher pride

8th July 2016 at 00:00
Schools in Ontario boil teaching down to three priorities – literacy, numeracy and fostering public confidence in the system. Should Scotland now do the same?

STV’s Scotland Tonight programme recently asked, “What makes a good teacher?” Answering it, a panel of education figures cited the qualities of passion, personality, empathy and professionalism. They commented on the huge demands and expectations, but also the ease with which teachers often get knocked by others who don’t even begin to understand the job’s complexities.

One member of the panel expressed concern that the profession today just isn’t held in the esteem that it should be. Is it any wonder, then, that we struggle to attract teachers, particularly secondary teachers, into teaching?

The programme – which featured the views Ken Cunningham, former headteacher of Glasgow’s Hillhead High and general secretary of School Leaders Scotland; Adam Fortune, a primary teacher embarking on his probationary year; and Tom Pringle – aka Dr Bunhead, a pioneer of performance-science shows – reminded me of a visit I made a few years ago to Ontario.

The province in Canada is often held up as one of the world’s best-performing education systems. Just as in Finnish schools, Ontario classrooms looked little different to any effective classroom in any Scottish school, day in, day out. The approaches to learning and teaching were no better or more varied than in Scotland. And the children and young people seemed equally, but no more, engaged in their learning than they were here. However, three things struck me at the time and I was reminded of them by watching the STV programme, as well as the context of ongoing debate about how to improve our education system in Scotland.

Three is the magic number

My first observation was the extent to which all Ontario teachers could share the province’s relentless focus on three easily understood priorities for schools: improving literacy; improving numeracy; and, perhaps surprisingly, building and enhancing public confidence in the education system.

It really didn’t matter with whom I spoke – school principals, senior managers, class and support teachers, even parents – all could articulate clearly what they were striving to deliver. As you might expect, there were various posters and leaflets around schools to reinforce the focus on the three areas.

Ontario teachers I spoke with acknowledged that they knew there was a wider range of developments and initiatives at a strategic level, but they welcomed the “uncomplicated” direction given by their school boards and the province in focusing on the three priorities.

This approach isn’t a million miles away from Scotland’s focus on literacy, numeracy, and health and wellbeing in addressing the Scottish Attainment Challenge. But perhaps what is missing from the Scottish plans is the clarity given in Ontario and suggested recently by the new education secretary, John Swinney, as being key to supporting teachers and simplifying the landscape.

My second observation was around the use of data by Ontario teachers. Yes, there was regular assessment of children’s work by teachers and testing was used to generate data. However, much of the assessment was genuinely formative, building up a picture of each child’s strengths and their areas for development through high-quality professional judgement by teachers.

Indeed, in one school, teachers came together regularly in a “data centre” to discuss children’s progress and together planned the next steps. I suggested to one principal that the Ontario system seemed heavily focused on data generation and collection. She didn’t disagree, but suggested that it was “data-informed rather than data-based”.

In Ontario, there was no hint or mention of the data teachers collected being used for league tables, or to name and shame staff or schools. Teachers saw data as a friend, not a foe; a tool to improve children’s life chances, not create sensationalist headlines in newspapers and magazines. This is a shift of individual mindset and perhaps culture when compared with how the use of data is often presented and understood in Scotland.

What, then, of Ontario’s third priority, to build and enhance public confidence in the education system? To what extent is Scotland seriously addressing the issue of talking up the teaching profession in a way that generates confidence and attracts new teachers?

Of course, the current workload issues that teachers across Scotland feel are very real. They need to be addressed and Mr Swinney suggests they will be. These issues most certainly would dissuade some people from entering the profession.

Also, stories of teachers being removed from the register by the General Teaching Council of Scotland often make it onto the front pages of newspapers, accompanied by salacious and damning headlines. However, while some see these stories as bringing down the profession, the reality is that they go a long way towards enhancing and building public confidence (and, indeed, that of teachers and pupils), who are reassured that a strong regulator exists to maintain standards and enhance teacher professionalism.

Preach to the unconverted

What can we do individually to help build public confidence and reverse the current tide of negativity? There is much that is positive about Scottish education and the public should know the hard graft and dedication that teachers put into their work, day in, day out. There can be no greater responsibility and no more invigorating a career than helping give future generations the skills and confidence to add real value to society. Yet how many teachers sell their profession to the captive audience of students in their classrooms?

Hundreds of young people leave school each year for whom a career in teaching would be an attractive, fulfilling option. Is it time for the main organisations in Scottish education – GTCS, Education Scotland, trade unions, the Scottish Qualifications Authority – led by the government, to launch a public campaign to raise awareness of the commitment, range and quality of work carried out by the vast majority of teachers across the country?

Teachers I talk to find it infuriating when they work hard to deliver high-quality learning, yet all they – and their students and families – hear are negative views. This is not just a media issue; it is incumbent upon everyone in Scottish education to talk up the high-quality work that is done and, despite the problems that do exist and must be addressed, use that positivity as a lever to encourage more people to become teachers.

In short, it’s time to take a lesson from Canada. It’s time to talk up teaching.

Ken Muir is chief executive of the General Teaching Council for Scotland

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