‘Profiteers are on the prowl to devour our school system’

20th May 2016 at 00:00
profit-makers on the prowl
Teachers should seek to lead reform but may lack the time and energy to do so, union leader says

Scotland has been protected against a profit-driven “virus” that is tainting education across the globe – but creeping “marketisation” remains a threat to schools, a union leader warned today.

Euan Duncan, president of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, said that teachers should “flip” the education system by leading reform, rather than having change thrust upon them by national government.

But he said he feared that the energy to challenge centrally driven policy could no longer be found in teachers’ staffrooms. Increasing workload meant that, rather than being hubs of activity and discussion, these were “barren places, uninhabited and unused”.

He told the union’s annual conference in Crieff today: “We need to cherish the values we have in Scottish education and protect what we have with all our might: no academies, no free schools, no marketisation, no standardised testing, no published league tables.”

He warned that Scotland was not immune to what has been dubbed “GERM” (the “global education reform movement”), which is “imposing a business model on education” and “spreading rapidly like a virus”.

There are signs of danger, for example, in the Scottish government’s imposition of standardised assessments and Edinburgh’s “collapsing” privately financed school buildings, Mr Duncan claimed.

The narrowing of choice in the senior pupils’ curriculum and the replacement of principal subject teachers with “managerial” faculty leaders also represent a threat, he said. “Profit-makers are prowling all around our education system, seeking out what they can devour,” said Mr Duncan.


Lines of defence

He said that he remained undecided on the new SNP government’s plans for educational boards – apparently designed to give headteachers and communities more responsibility for running schools.

But he noted, with sarcasm, that England’s free schools and academies were fuelled by similar rhetoric, “and we all know what a great job [Westminster education secretary] Nicky Morgan has been making of that”.

Scotland, however, has several national education organisations that are run on a not-for-profit basis, he said, and while all had received their share of criticism, they offered protection against market forces.

The profession should “grip tightly” to the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers (SNCT) and its national pay framework, said Mr Duncan.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) “may have its faults” but it is not run for profit “and we can talk to it about exams and assessment”, he added.

The General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) is “a listening organisation – not perfect but not private”, which “invites teachers to work together with their colleagues to examine their own professionalism”, he said.

Similarly, Education Scotland has no requirement to drive up profits when employing teachers to support and inspect schools, the union leader said.

Even the much-criticised Seemis digital-management information system used by councils – which Mr Duncan described as “aged and slow, desperately needing money spent on it” – has the virtue of “not lining the offshore pockets of shareholders”.

Mr Duncan said that these organisations were crucial in protecting the Scottish education system from GERM, which “aims to produce a narrowly educated workforce [that] can read instructions and advertisements but is discouraged from thinking critically about the world”.

He also highlighted “strong and compelling evidence” from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that market principles have “a negative impact on student outcomes by deepening segregation and inequality”.

Teachers should “flip” the education system by taking charge of reform, he added, rather than having it foisted upon them by national government.

“One of the hardest things about working in the public sector is that when politicians seek improvements, the simplest answer is to expect employees to work harder for less,” said Mr Duncan. “We are seeing it with the junior doctors in England. We see it with education in Scotland.”

But he is concerned that the energy to challenge centrally driven policy is no longer generated in school staffrooms, as these “once lively hubs of discourse and freewheeling development opportunities” are now deserted. Some privately financed schools, he said, have even been built without staffrooms.


Fighting talk: qualifications and workload

Motions at this year’s Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association conference cover an array of issues.

On qualifications, there are calls to examine the different numbers of courses taken by pupils in different local authorities, and to introduce external examinations into National 4.

The Scottish government’s controversial Named Person policy – whereby children will be assigned a professional, often a teacher, to oversee their wellbeing – will be scrutinised. This comes amid concerns that it places an “unsustainable burden” on already stressed-out guidance teachers.

More generally, there is a demand for blanket opposition to budget cuts that target guidance teachers. There is a call, too, for “zero tolerance” when teachers are victims of violence. Another motion demands more support for pupils with non-binary gender.

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