This year has been a tumultuous one in Scottish education. TESS takes a look – with tongue firmly lodged in cheek at times – at who and what has emerged unscathed and who is looking a tad more bedraggled.
The general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, who took up the job this spring, is a strong-minded, likeable and measured sort of chap. Which was exactly what the union needed after the turbulent three-week era of Sheila Mechan (granted, it was only an era in the way that an Aldi lasagne’s five minutes in the microwave is an epoch). The coda to Mechan’s acrimonious departure is that she has firmly flicked her old colleagues what is the ultimate V-sign for Scottish trade unionists – by standing for the Tories in next year’s Holyrood elections.
Fans of spreadsheets and dodgy data
The prospect of school league tables has loomed over Scottish teachers with all the heady appeal of being stuck in a lift with Donald Trump. The broader, less controversial aims of the National Improvement Framework or NIF (“Noun: something that looks initially appealing but has a distinctly unpleasant whiff”) have become lost amid the hoo-ha over whether specious rankings of the performance of schools – whether rich, poor, big, small, urban, rural – would soon be appearing at the newsstands. These would be about as fair to lower-ranked schools as castigating a horse for not laying eggs or dismissing Lionel Messi’s football talent because he didn’t find the God particle.
There is sensible opposition to Named Person (a policy, let’s not forget, in response to the tragedies of children who died because the social services meant to look after them didn’t get their act together). Legal opposition to Named Person – spearheaded by the Christian Institute, better known for campaigns against gay rights – has so far floundered and been dismissed in court as “hyperbole”. Ukip’s David Coburn, who seems to view the Scottish government as crazy giant insectoids, all intent on furtively siphoning out our brains, appears to believe the “named people” – usually teachers, of course – will employ the sort of surveillance policies that will make the Stasi look like flower children.
Oil tycoon Sir Ian Wood can now list the report bearing his name as one of his proudest achievements (alongside that snap of him handing over an honorary degree to a gurning Donald Trump). The document helped to put vocational education in the spotlight, at around the same time as we were reporting from a school where a cycle-repair workshop had become as important as good grades in maths and English. The school has also gone out of its way to goad the Daily Mail by using pictures of columnist Katie Hopkins for archery practice and ditching the traditional Christmas concert for a less traditional staging of The Wicker Man, in which Edward Woodward’s place is taken by the Queen.
Pupils and parents
Children should be seen and not heard, while parents can only guess what goes on at their taciturn offspring’s school by bugging pencil cases and carbon-dating lunchbox crumbs. Right? Far from it. “Pupil voice” and “parental involvement” are no longer buzz words that are easily ignored – to traditionalists they are chainsaws-ripping-into-fluffy-bunnies words. Emboldened pupils and their families are having more influence on how schools are run than ever before. We’ve published articles this year on pupils writing reports that advise teachers how to do their jobs. Which, depending on your point of view, is a glittering example of student agency – or the end of times.
In 2010, Labour won 41 Scottish seats at the general election; in 2015, they got one. New leader Kezia Dugdale’s chalice is not merely poisoned, it’s full to the brim with arsenic. She deserves plaudits for gamely taking the fight to the SNP, often on education grounds. But you can’t help feeling that she’s a bit like Will Smith in I Am Legend, not knowing, as he splatters zombie guts, whether he’s the last human alive and if there’s any point to it all.
It’s tough being education secretary Angela Constance. Her boss Nicola Sturgeon likes to take on the big education announcements – the £100 million attainment challenge, standardised national assessment – while Constance traipses round myriad conferences, making speeches to nonplussed audiences, keeping half an eye out for the brickbats from teachers disgruntled about workload, new qualifications, national tests and the rest. It’s a bit like a US president announcing, “Hey world, we’re sending people to Mars!” while the head of Nasa is left back at HQ to tell his underlings that he’s banning holidays and cancelling the Christmas party.
Local authorities body Cosla started the year flailing like a street-corner drunk at the Scottish government’s summary decision to penalise its members over teacher numbers. And it ended the year flailing like a streetcorner drunk at the government’s summary decision to prohibit shorter teaching weeks. Cosla’s anti-government invective crescendos in proportion to its sense of impotence over making big savings in education. If Cosla were a person, he or she would be mired in negative equity, on the brink of desperate measures, like pawning off Granny on Antiques Roadshow or wondering whether that squirrel in the garden would be better grilled or pan-fried.
McLeish resigned as first minister in 2001 over what he described as “a muddle, not a fiddle”. This year, he stepped down as chair of Glasgow Colleges Regional Board after news emerged of its sky-high running costs – higher than for all other Scottish further education boards put together. His board showed the structural integrity of the Forth Road Bridge in a hurricane, with the revelation disquieting several high-profile members, who quit in quick succession. McLeish has yet to announce whether he would categorise the affair as “guddle”, “fuddle”, “piddle”, “widdle”, “bumble”, “fumble”, “waffle”, “piffle”, “hubble”, “bubble”, “toil” or “trouble”.
Languages and Stem subjects are suffering in Scotland – but that’s OK, it’s not like the world is in need of communicating a bit better or as if technology is advancing at an exponential rate. New qualifications have resulted in pupils taking fewer subjects, with languages and science squeezed. Policymakers insist that there’s no downside, a bit like a Barras stallholder hawking a defective TV and protesting that you really don’t need more than two channels. And it remains to be seen whether 1+2 will be recalled for posterity as a landmark achievement in inspiring children to study languages, or as the name of a tawdry matchmaking website.
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