How workload woe has sparked a call to action

5th February 2016 at 00:00
Scottish teachers hadn’t been on strike since the 80s – until last month. Henry Hepburn asks whether the recent action in West Dunbartonshire is a sign of things to come

A young teacher is on the verge of tears. She has listened through familiar complaints about her profession’s mounting workload, but something is missing.

She and her fellow West Dunbartonshire secondary teachers had earlier formed that rarest of sights at Scottish schools: the picket line. But for her, the motivation for striking was not workload, however bad that might be. In fact, planned cuts to pastoral care staff were the rallying issue.

“We’ve got children who are self-harming, suicidal, who have cancer,” the teacher said at the protest. “[A pastoral teacher] is sometimes the only person they can speak to.”

That sparked her hitherto rather subdued colleagues into noisy applause – she had tapped into the mood that had brought them here. For years, teachers have faced budget savings dressed up as educational innovation. But what West Dunbartonshire Council had put on the table now, they argued, was simply bad old-fashioned cuts.

The setting was the EIS union’s campaign rally at Clydebank Town Hall on the day of the strike. Officials had wondered if teachers would file away after making their point at the picket lines of West Dunbartonshire’s five secondary schools. Instead, it was standing room only in a hall with some 100 seats.

“You are pioneers,” said general secretary Larry Flanagan as he addressed the crowd.

This was no trade union hyperbole. Aside from the joint action with other public sector unions over pensions in 2011, Scottish teachers have not been on strike since the 1980s. And the decision by a local EIS association to go on strike – which was backed by national officials – is highly unusual.

“What happens here will be a template for how to challenge and fight back against the local authorities in the next difficult period of local authority budgets,” added Flanagan.

The obvious questions are “Why here?” and “Why now?” Every one of Scotland’s 32 local authorities is contemplating unpalatable cuts, and concerns about workload reaching untenable proportions extend across the country.

‘Inopportune timing’

West Dunbartonshire Council has proposed £600,000 of savings, including the pastoral care cuts and a diminishing number of depute head posts, but has insisted that there will be no reduction in teachers, teaching time or management time. At the time of writing, it had not backtracked in any way to appease union members, who embarked on a “work to contract” after the strike.

Principal teacher posts are to be cut, with the authority moving en masse towards new faculty structures that will fuse subjects such as PE and home economics – “You couldn’t find two more disparate subjects,” says Flanagan – and English and languages. He foresees a “generic mess” as a result of the changes, with subject teachers left out on a limb if their faculty head has a different specialism.

The timing of the cuts “could not have been more inopportune”, Flanagan tells TESS, with teachers “at the end of their tether” over new qualifications – a view backed in a survey by the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (see graphic, above).

Faculty structures have existed in large swathes of Scotland for several years without provoking any sort of industrial action, West Dunbartonshire Council has pointed out.

But the counter-argument is that faculties’ failings were less pronounced when councils started introducing them over a decade ago, before the credit crunch. Principal teachers got lifetime conservation of salaries – those in West Dunbartonshire will now get three years – and there were more staff around to contend with the changes.

So could 2016 be remembered as the year that a tipping point was reached – one where West Dunbartonshire’s secondary teachers started a trend that others would follow?

Plentiful surveys over recent years have shown teachers’ dissatisfaction with all sorts of issues, but after making their feelings known teachers have tended to simply plough on with job in hand.

Even complaints about the most controversial issue in Scottish education of the last year – first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s plans for standardised national assessments – have been relatively muted aside from the official missives by trade unions, with consultation events poorly attended.

Teachers have privately told TESS that this is not a reflection of contentment – more a sign that they are so over-burdened that they do not have the time or energy to rail against a policy that looked like a fait accompli from the start.

But West Dunbartonshire EIS secretary Michael Dolan said that the latest cuts, and the impact on teachers’ workload and pupils’ welfare, were the “straw that broke the camel’s back”. And something is stirring in Scottish education more generally; the spirit of collaboration that sprung from the 2001 McCrone Agreement on teachers’ pay is in shorter and shorter supply.

Councils are unhappy that their hands have been tied by the government when it comes to big savings, with unilateral restrictions placed on cutting teacher numbers, closing rural schools and, most recently, shortening the teaching weeks in primary schools.

Local authorities body Cosla at times seems to be declaring open war on both the government and the EIS. This week, outgoing Cosla chief executive Rory Mair accuses the EIS of being “impediments to education” (see pages 6-7). No love is lost in return, with Flanagan telling the West Dunbartonshire rally that local authorities are “almost literally foaming at the mouth because the EIS has managed to secure a block on teacher numbers”.

A world of discontent

The worst cuts to education may be deferred until 2018 and beyond, with politicians keen to curry favour with the electorate in the lead-up to May’s parliamentary election and next year’s council elections. Markers, however, are already being laid down.

Fife, for example, briefly floated the radical idea of its education being placed into an arm’s-length trust and doing away with a dedicated support-for-learning service, but those ideas have been parked for now. Some councils have proposed raising council tax, in open defiance of one of the government’s most cherished policies.

The discontent that is stirring among West Dunbartonshire teachers also reflects a mood that extends well beyond Scotland. Their action took place on the same day as junior doctors in England went on a rare strike. And across the world, political parties and figures – whatever their actual policies – are surging in popularity whenever they manage to pass themselves off as a break from the established order: the SNP, Greek left-wing party Syriza and US presidential candidate Donald Trump have all capitalised on a thirst for something new.

The ripple effects of the global economic crash of 2008 and the subsequent austerity measures are still filtering through the world. In Scottish education, strenuous efforts have been made to protect schools, pupils and teachers, but councils are now thinking about once unthinkable cash-saving solutions.

Most councils will have set their annual budgets by the end of February. Once the dust settles, we will start to see how many teachers feel compelled to follow in the footsteps of their West Dunbartonshire colleagues.


‘Teachers cannot be expected to work in these conditions’

Workload is at an “at an all-time high”, according to Euan Duncan, president of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA). The union has concerns about the burden of new qualifications, and has carried out a survey that lays bare teachers’ fears about their ability to deliver and assess them (see graphic, page 17).

“It’s us on the ground that are creating these courses based on very vague information from the SQA [Scottish Qualifications Authority], with no support from anyone else,” said one teacher. Another complained of “no consistency in anything – it all depends on who you speak to and what council they work for.”

The importance of principal teachers was a recurring theme in the survey of 1,244 teachers. One respondent said that the preparation of adequate material hinged on the efforts of a “workaholic” principal teacher.

“Teachers cannot be expected to continue to work under these conditions,” said SSTA general secretary Seamus Searson.

SQA was “very conscious” that teachers still needed support, a spokesman said, adding that feedback about support materials and training events had been “positive”.

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