Dominie Dominoes

War may not have broken out in Scottish schools quite yet but Michael Gove’s caricature of the annoying swot who used to get beat up behind the bike shed is pushing things that way South of the Border. As the Beeb puts it:

“Teachers in major unions are expected to debate no confidence votes on the Education Secretary Michael Gove and the head of England’s schools’ inspectorate, Ofsted.

“Members of the NASUWT and National Union of Teachers are holding their annual conferences this weekend. The NUT, meeting in Liverpool, is expected to hold votes on Mr Gove and Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw.

“The NASUWT will hear calls for an overhaul or abolition of inspections. It claims the government’s education policies are “destructive” and that Ofsted inspections are undermining confidence in England’s education system.”

Back in Sconnie Botland, consensus is closer: no less figures than Unison’s Dave Watson and Education Secretary Mike Russell are in agreement that English-style league tables should not be published as measures of school performance. As Mr Russell puts it:

“At its worst, the league table mentality insists that measurement can only be meaningful if it is used in judgemental comparisons, although it does not understand that such comparisons are nearly impossible given diversity of cohorts, communities and cultures.”

This position is endorsed by all of Scotland’s teaching unions. As Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), sees it:

“It’s important parents know how a school is doing, but it’s much more about the narrative, rather than just the raw data. A few years ago Castlemilk High achieved one of the best inspection reports ever and its head teacher was lauded for his efforts, yet at the time it had the worst qualification results in the Glasgow area. Had it been in a league table, it would have been bottom.”

There is much to be said, morally, for this view. After all, it’s not a child’s fault where it was born of which parents who have whatever level of social status. And no-one these days denies that social deprivation is a major statistic for any Scots child under-performing in education, which in turn prolongs that area’s deprivation.

There’s just one problem: the world doesn’t give a monkey’s toss for such niceties. No-one gets on the Scottish Commonwealth Games team because they went to Castlemilk High and therefore deserve a bye to compensate. The same applies to jobs and life, let alone careers. Moral arguments are fine if they produce results but Scottish education consistently fails too many of its kids: our youth unemployment stats are a consequence. It need not be about brainy bastards; it simply has to be about preparing pupils to fulfill as happy, prosperous and successful a life as adults as possible.

Larry Flanagan and his well meaning ilk perpetuate the exact opposite.

Because, however much they bang on about it, the welfare of union membership—whether it be in pay and conditions or in warm & fuzzy praise for doing a good job in difficult (code for socially deprived) circumstances—is not what education is about. And, as their unions have lost sight of this, so have a large section of teachers, some of whom even see stroppy opposition as a weapon in whatever party political fight they feel they—and by extension their brethren—are engaged in. If pupils need to lose a few days’ schooling in the cause, so be it. For all there are many conscientious, dedicated teachers who go that extra mile, between ill-disciplined stroppy sorts and unpruned dead wood, teaching gives poor value and worse attitude.

While the right to strike is one deserving of protection, few grant it to soldiers, police, nurses, etc. An argument that blameless children are those most hurt by teachers withholding their labour puts them at least in a grey area whether such measures are justified. Were the teachers striking over shortage of computers or derelict schools or education policies they believed in, like PE methods that tackle childhood obesity, it would be difficult to fault their motivation.

But they’re not. Every industrial action threatened has been over teachers’ pay and conditions. What’s more, it has been done with an ill-mannered belligerence, reminiscent of the strike-prone decline of old industrial Britain in the ’60s/’70s that culminated in Thatcher. Because, as then, no reference is allowed for other segments of industry suffering lost wages and benefits, nor to their own pay and conditions having been massively improved.

It’s very like negotiating with Russians: each concession made is accepted without any reciprocal obligation of quid pro quo. They have generous, cast-iron final-salary pensions? They want more. They received a pay rise in 2010 when other public sector workers (and most private sector workers) got none? Entirely deserved and should have been bigger. Devolved school budget is overspent? Must be the council’s fault for not giving us enough.

They call themselves professionals, yet behave like petulant teenagers and shame other ‘real’ professionals who consider their salary as an obligation to get a job done, not  measured as a clock-watching pay-per-hour. Since it’s the mostly secondary-based unions who are the most belligerent, perhaps teaching teenagers does infect behaviour. This is perhaps the one area where teachers do deserve support and sympathy: dealing with sullen, pubescent 14-year-olds day-in, day-out is not an easy job and not made easier when parents can behave as if they have outsourced family obligations to schools.

But let’s not lose sight of why they and the sullen 14-year-olds are there. It’s not day care for brawny minors so mum can earn a second salary. Yet, despite collusion among teachers, education authorities, HM Inspectors and the kids themselves that exam results have improved over the last decade or so, disappointed employers and appalling levels of illiteracy and innumeracy among school leavers tell a very different story. While we are fannying about soft-soaping teaching union egos, our PISA ratings are dropping and comparison with others becomes ever less flattering—especially when you consider Finland has the top EU performance, yet pays its teachers 2/3rds of Scots colleagues.

PISA places UK education in a mediocre 25th place—behind the US, Poland and Ireland and above average only in science. For Scots who have always prided themselves in the strength of their education since dominie days, it is a bitter blow and should provide a wake-up call, especially when all involved tacitly connive to accept social context as an excuse for poor school performance that deprives successive generation of a proper start. PISA is quite clear and unforgiving on this:

“The best performing school systems manage to provide high-quality education to all students. Canada, Finland, Japan, Korea and the partner economies Hong Kong-China and Shanghai-China all perform well above the OECD mean performance and students tend to perform well regardless of their own background or the school they attend. they not only have large proportions of students performing at the highest levels of reading proficiency, but also relatively few students at the lower proficiency levels.

Thus (the UK) is in the difficult position of having an education system that is defined by socio-economic factors rather than one which overcomes them.”

In other words, good schools defeat social problems. So this apologetic and ineffectual Scots roundelay, in which teaching unions claim throwing more money at them is worthwhile and once any money is thrown, play this ‘get-out-of-jail-free card’ for any school with significant social deprivation in its catchment, must stop. Otherwise this cyclical failure of  large slice of our young becomes inevitable as successive dominoes falling.

If teachers believe they are excused for failure, so do pupils—who then wander out into the world ill-prepared for an icy and very judgmental reality of the job market. Many will then follow the marble-in-a-rhone-pipe benefits-based career, with many getting their real education studying at one or other of our great traditional institutions of the University of Life: the buroo, daytime TV and Saughton.

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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