4 Apr 2012
Findlay: Scottish education needs clear leadership - it's not getting it
The end of last month saw quite a U-turn in the Scottish Government position on the exam timetable for the new Curriculum for Excellence (CFE) programme. After weeks of intensive pressure from teachers, parents, trade unions and Labour's education team the government has now allowed schools the right to delay, using intermediate exams, if they feel they are not ready to introduce CFE. Nevertheless, even when backtracking, SNP Education Minister Mike Russell reverted to type - pompous and bombastic to the last, he stubbornly refused to accept that any problem existed and that this was somehow all a Labour fantasy. Nothing could be further from the truth.
But, despite his usual bluff and spin, Mike Russell knows that his announcement amounts to nothing less than a climbdown from his previous position warning against delay. He expressed his views categorically to the Education Committee on the 6th of March when he said “I do not believe that the option of delay is in the best interests of our young people”. However, he did leave himself some wriggle room when he went on to say:
“The option of delay through use of the intermediates exists and will remain for subject departments for a few months yet” but warned against it when he continued… “the risks for young people that are associated with that approach should not be underestimated”.
Yet, only 2 weeks later Russell offered schools the option to delay through the use of intermediate exams; if that’s not a U-turn I don’t know what is. That said we welcome his change of mind, as it provides safeguards and reassurance to our teachers, parents and, most importantly, the 54000 pupils currently in S2 who will be the first pupils to be examined under the CFE programme.
Before going on I want to make it abundantly clear - we are fully behind the CFE programme. After all it was Labour who introduced it in the first place. CFE will, when ready, enrich children’s educational experience. Our concern (despite the attempts by the SNP to suggest otherwise) is not based on the concept of CFE itself, but, rather on the practical concerns in relation to its implementation. Practicalities and concerns that have been voiced by our teachers, the most vital cog in this process as the people charged with its effective implementation.
The main Scottish teaching unions, the EIS and SSTA, in particular are to be congratulated for their campaign in highlighting the problems with CFE implementation. They have shown and expressed the concerns held by many, many teachers - who quite simply feel pressured and unready for the effective implementation of CFE: a situation that is inflated by the wider issues in our schools.
Let us remember that CFE is now taking place against the backdrop of education cuts, job losses, decreasing opportunities for young teachers and attacks on teacher’s pensions and terms and conditions. Our teachers, new and old alike are contending with various concerns all at once. This doesn’t seem like the best conditions in which to begin overhauling education in Scotland.
Another fundamental factor is that teachers need to have their classes covered so that they can attend training for CFE. In short, they need supply teachers. But, we are facing a crisis with our supply teacher system. Many local authorities are seeing supply teachers refuse to cover in short term vacancies. In West Lothian for example, it was reported in December that 299 of the 324 requests received for short term day to day cover had not been filled. One does wonder how those teachers who need training are going to be able to access it if supply cover is not available as a direct result of having their pay and terms and conditions drastically cut. A situation compounded by the cuts to classroom assistants.
One further concern we need be vigilant on is the Scottish Government treatment of the Further Education sector. The current reform (regionalisation and merger) process is underpinned by cuts to funding. We know through FOI requests that some senior managers believe the regionalisation process is a mask for cuts within the FE sector. The £33m cut to teaching allocations this year and the proposed cuts for the two years after will see, by 2014-2015, an overall cut of £89m to teaching budgets in our FE colleges. This is on top of the 10% cut that was already put in place last year. We are very concerned that this will lead to job losses amongst hard working, committed and dedicated staff at Colleges across the country.
Cuts, or ‘rationalisations’, have begun at Edinburgh's colleges. In recent weeks the three recently regionalised colleges, Stevenson, Telford and Jewel and Esk, have initiated a voluntary severance scheme for employees. A leaked memo to staff explained the need for staff reductions. It said clearly how they are facing a reduction of income of approx 8.5% in 2012/13 and a further 5% in each of the following two years. Perversely, these cuts come just when we need colleges most; at a time of rising unemployment, across all ages, but particularly amongst our young people.
The inconsistencies in the SNP’s approach to education are of course mirrored in other areas of policy. Identifying these and working towards our own positive vision is what will help us move forward at both local and national levels.