A Stressed Education System

The teaching profession often comes under criticism when teachers are ‘moaning’ about their lot. Significant holiday periods are oft-quoted as being a massive perk and one which should mean that teachers keep quiet when they think things are tough. My response to that criticism is that ‘if you think it’s that great, come and join us’ which is usually met with laughter as the penny sinks.

At the moment, the Scottish Education System is suffering from stress. In human terms, stress leads to ill-health and in the worst of cases heart attacks and strokes. The system itself is now heading for a similar fate if we don’t get our act together.

Let’s take a look at the challenges facing Scottish teachers and their schools:

Scotland’s teachers have seen salaries drop by six per cent in a decade. The report ‘Education at a Glance 2017’ by the OECD also highlights teachers’ salaries are lower on average than the earnings of other tertiary educated workers. Teachers accept their pay levels because all are aware of the reality of publicly funded jobs. However, the fact remains that teachers are woefully underpaid.

This, at a time of massive reorganisation in curriculum and national exams and the introduction of reaccreditation of teachers where, every five years, we have to be ‘signed off’ as meeting the standards expected of a teacher. Whilst this sounds like a great idea, the reality is that teachers undertake an additional and excessive workload to prove that they are still competent. This too would be fine if incompetent teachers were then being struck off. I wonder how many teachers have been ‘deregistered because of incompetency’ in the last five years? Fewer than 10, I suspect. It’s like taking a 10-ton wrecking ball to crack a peanut.

And then the reform to courses did not really work out. So the latest shake-up of Scottish education means that pupils will spend less time being tested, Education Secretary John Swinney has said. He said despite longer exams in some situations there will be a ‘balance’ between coursework and assessment. For me, this is further tinkering with a system that isn’t working.

Mr Swinney has also admitted there are ‘challenges’ recruiting teachers as he confirmed there are almost 700 vacancies in Scotland’s schools. Surprise, surprise.

And then the icing on the cake. Over 40% of Scotland’s teachers intend to leave the profession in the next eighteen months according to an academic report by Bath Spa University. The study highlights that Scottish teachers were suffering a range of difficulties including massive organisational change, being overloaded with administrative responsibilities and dealing with poor student and parental behaviour. The report found that teachers were working at a minimum of 11 hours over their contracted hours – in other words a 6 and a half day working week.

And today, a high school in Edinburgh has resorted to appealing to parents to help after being unable to fill two maths’ teacher vacancies. The school is also having to draft in other subject teachers to cover maths’ lessons despite advertising the posts twice.

And it’s not just staff that are at breaking point. The recent WHO report into childhood health reports that Scotland has the highest rate of self-harm amongst 15-year-old girls in the world, bar one. This, at a time when more than 250,000 children in Scotland have no access to school-based counselling services. An investigation by BBC Scotland found that 14 of Scotland’s 32 councils have no on-site counsellors, while provision by other councils is not consistent.

What do all of these indicators tell us?

We have an education system that is not child-friendly, that is overly-reliant on one success indicator, namely data emanating from examination results and a workforce that is demotivated and on the cusp of leaving in droves.

Can I go back to the most important piece of advice I have ever read with regard to education which came from the Scottish Advisory Council on Education (a Government body) in 1947.

The report stated:

“The good school is to be assessed not by any tale of examination success, however impressive, but by the extent to which it has filled the years of youth with security, graciousness and ordered freedom.”

Sometimes we need to go back in order to go forward. Back to where education was about being educated rather than about being trained to pass tests.

Rod Grant