Union and ministers are all ‘holding schools back’

5th February 2016 at 00:00
Cosla chief claims focus on maintaining teacher numbers is blocking progress

The most senior official in local government has launched a blistering attack on political leaders and Scotland’s biggest teaching union, accusing them of impeding the progress of the country’s education system.

As he prepares to retire, Rory Mair delivered a parting broadside, accusing the government of “micromanaging” education and focusing on “inputs” such as teacher numbers, instead of outcomes such as reducing inequality.

He also alleged that the EIS union’s campaign against child poverty was simply “window dressing” for its main interest – protecting teachers’ jobs, no matter what the cost.

Mr Mair, the outgoing chief executive of Cosla, the umbrella body for councils, claimed that central and local government had both spent “inordinately more time” discussing teacher numbers than it had talking about the drive to close the attainment gap.

In an exclusive interview, Mr Mair told TESS: “Social workers are not protected [in their employment], social care workers are not protected – it’s only if you are a teacher you are protected.

“To me, if you have got a union that does not care at all about the quality of provision, and only cares to be one thing a union might be, which is an advocate of its members, then I don’t think, given what has happened with equality in education, that they can claim to be the defenders of that.

“Their policies about staff are one of the impediments to the way in which we make progress in education.”

The EIS launched a vigorous defence of itself following the comments, saying that the union was “duty bound” to act in the best interests of education (see box, “And what the EIS union says in its defence...”, right)

Speaking about the priorities of those in charge of education in Scotland, Mr Mair added: “It’s daft to say, ‘Those are the things that count, but measure this other thing’, because attention is then focused on that.”

‘Skewed priorities’

His comments come just weeks after TESS revealed that 10 authorities had been denied significant shares of funding for their failure to maintain teacher numbers over the past year.

Some authorities were denied a slice of additional money even if they had one of the best teacher-pupil ratios in the country.

The policy to maintain numbers, the government has argued, is vital in order to raise standards and close the attainment gap.

This also comes at a time of significant budget cuts, which have forced councils to make savings across the board.

Mr Mair continued: “I can tell you – we are the national body that negotiates with government – and we have spent far more of our time talking about teacher numbers than we have spent talking about the first minister’s wish to see inequalities driven out of education.

“We want to see inequalities driven out of education but we’re pretty sure you don’t drive them out by committing yourself to 50,000-plus teachers,” he said.

The chief executive also questioned why education secretary Angela Constance thought that she could do a better job than councillors, who have governing responsibility over schools, or education professionals.

“That just seems to me a very odd claim to make. How could you be that sure of yourself?” he said.

First minister Nicola Sturgeon has made education her main focus since succeeding Alex Salmond in October 2014 and has staked her personal reputation on closing the attainment gap, investing £100 million over four years in the Scottish Attainment Challenge.

But Mr Mair said that the challenge would not work as an add-on; it needed to change the nature of the core service to make a long-term difference.

Responding to the claims, a spokesperson for the government said that it made “no apology for taking decisive action aimed at raising standards” across education.

“We do not believe that cutting the current numbers of teachers, or reducing the time pupils get with their teacher, will benefit their learning. We are continuing to work with local authorities and other key partners to create a world-class education system.”


The Cosla chief’s broadside...

Rory Mair, the outgoing chief of Cosla, gives his views on aspects of the education system:

The Scottish Attainment Challenge

“The education challenge sits attached to, as if it was slightly different from, mainstream education policy. That’s not going to work.”

The EIS union

“Their policies about staff are one of the impediments to the way in which we make progress in education.”

The SNP pledge to maintain teacher numbers

“Why is the cabinet secretary being questioned in Parliament about a drop of 27 teachers in Scotland? It focuses attention for micro-management on a government minister.”

A minimum staffing standard

“A national staffing formula is maybe better than a single teacher number but it’s still a stupid way of looking at the education service.”

Councils sharing services

“Why don’t we have a big shed somewhere on the M8 that employs all the payroll people for local government? The answer is because the amount you actually save is quite small.”

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