Just when will this collective madness end?

5th February 2016 at 00:00

The SNP’s promise to maintain teacher numbers is – to echo the view in most of local government – crazy.

It means that a council like Dumfries and Galloway, with one of the best pupil-teacher ratios in Scotland, is penalised for a small fluctuation in its numbers, while a council like East Lothian, with the worst pupil-teacher ratio in Scotland, gets a pat on the back and a cheque. This happens because in order to succeed, councils have only to maintain the status quo, whatever that happens to be.

But as Rory Mair – the outgoing chief executive of local authorities’ umbrella body Cosla – points out in this week’s TESS, that is the least of it (see pages 6-7). Teacher numbers have come to define and dominate Scottish education.

“Inordinately more time” has been spent discussing teacher numbers than the Scottish government’s ambition to close the attainment gap, he says. And he adds that while the target for teacher numbers exists, you have the education secretary Angela Constance being grilled about minor variations when she could be talking about how we improve equity in education, why teachers are threatening industrial action over the new qualifications or how we give Curriculum for Excellence the renewed focus the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development says it needs.

Another consequence is bemoaned by Jim Sweeney, chief executive of YouthLink Scotland (see pages 8-9). While teacher numbers are protected, other services end up suffering disproportionately. Even the general secretary of the EIS teaching union, Larry Flanagan, acknowledges that support for English as an additional language and for learning assistants has been hit harder because of the government’s teacher numbers pledge.

Youth work is also suffering badly, Mr Sweeney says, despite the fact that it reaches the quarter of young people not served particularly well by school.

These services certainly have something to add. As Professor Brian Boyd from the University of Strathclyde puts it, “schools can’t do education by themselves”. Researchers have found that employers increasingly rate “soft skills”, like those fostered by youth work, as more important than qualifications.

However, it is well worth noting that when the councils taking part in the Scottish Attainment Challenge received their first tranche of funding, they chose to spend large chunks of it on increasing teacher numbers. Thus teachers are vital and councils know it. So what are we to do?

Education directors and the EIS want a minimum staffing standard for schools to be introduced. Mr Mair dismisses the idea, arguing that while a staffing formula may be better than a single teacher number “it’s still a stupid way of looking at the education service”. He questions why we insist on judging a service that is all about outcomes for young people in terms of inputs.

But as Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at the University of Edinburgh, argues, it’s about fairness: “Where standards are judged only locally, they slip into lacking perspective and into being unfair”.

Cosla should get on board and embrace an idea that would bring a degree of equity to Scottish schools. If it doesn’t, the debate in Scottish education will be dominated for yet another year by the teacher numbers madness. And it will have done nothing to end the insanity.

Emma Seith (@TESScotland)

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