It was with some dismay that I read that there is to be a review of the broad general education in Scotland. If the review focus is something along the lines, how can we make the BGE more successful? The answer is a comparatively simple one that comes in two parts: resource and stability.
The past decade should have been one in which our education system flourished as a new curriculum bedded in – hopefully accompanied by improvements being seen in Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) rankings as well as domestic measures of system performance. However, the reality seems to have been a fairly stable level of performance. No big step change, no march up the international rankings to trumpet domestically or internationally.
My view is that this is not a failure of the systems put in place but rather a product of budgets being in constant real-terms decline over the period.
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Yes, there is a lot of extra money being put into education at the moment but that is largely related to delivering a new commitment of 1,140 hours of free early learning and care. Ask almost any school leader around Scotland to describe their budget situation and how it has changed over the past decade, and you will hear stories of cuts to management time, administrative support, pupils support and support available from local authority headquarters.
While teacher numbers and the supply of teachers are now improving in the primary sector, it is also important to remember that we have had a number of years when schools have often found it very difficult to find supply teachers and even core staff to fill vacancies. Against this backdrop, a fairly stable level of performance is actually something to trumpet.
The Scottish government has, understandably, made efforts to present the budget position as being rosier than the picture schools and school leaders would recognise, but it is UK-wide austerity budgeting rather than Scottish government policies that are at the heart of the problem. If we want to see our curriculum and our schools improve outcomes for young people then we need two things – and neither of them is a new review or change agenda.
First, the system needs stability. Policy change absorbs time and effort. Schools know what they need to do and require a stable policy environment to get on with the job. That does not mean that we halt all change – there are a range of initiatives in progress at the moment that seek to build on, rather than reinvent, what is already there.
Second, our education system desperately needs investment. This ongoing period of austerity has seen teacher numbers protected (quite rightly) but there have been cuts to all parts of the team that sits around them and enables them to do their job to the best effect. These cuts were partly selected as they were less visible and partly because the cuts needed to come from somewhere – a simple financial reality.
However, if (as appears to be the case) UK government spending means that Scotland will now see a jump in the block grant available to it, investment in education must be one of the highest priorities for those around the Cabinet table and in Parliament. The system’s shopping list might be:
- More business management/administrative staff to support school leaders with tasks not related to learning and teaching.
- More management time for school leaders to focus on school improvement.
- Further investment in staff to support pupils with additional needs.
- Investment in local authority teams to reverse some cuts to the support available.
"More teachers" is not on this list. Clearly, class teachers are the core of school education. However, where schools are fully staffed at current staffing standards then the priority needs to be to redevelop the team around that core.
My request to those developing any review of BGE would be to focus not on any reimagining of BGE or systems in Scottish education but rather on the question of where additional investment might have the biggest impact on system and pupil performance.
Greg Dempster is general secretary of AHDS, which represents primary school leaders in Scotland